The bullet struck with such force that it lifted Pvt. Harry A. Wolfe off the ground and spun him like a top.
Wolfe lay in the muddy minefield near Nomeny, France, with a hole the size of a fist blasted in his left thigh. A tourniquet had staunched much of the bleeding, but as he waited for medics to come pick him up, he was strafed by German fighter planes and showered with mud as mortars exploded nearby.
For nine hours on Nov. 8, 1944, he drifted in and out of consciousness.
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Wolfe was eventually picked up by a stretcher-bearing Army jeep. He endured surgery after surgery, but he survived his injury. For his bravery during the war, he was bestowed two of the U.S. military’s greatest distinctions: the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
On Tuesday, the 98-year-old Franklin resident was recognized yet again for his service. He was presented with the Legion of Honor, France’s highest tribute, for his participation in the liberation of France during World War II.
He sat in front of his family, friends and more than 100 onlookers as Guillaume Lacroix, Consul General of France for the Midwest region, pinned the medal on his Army uniform. As Lacroix leaned in, Wolfe embraced him, clapping him on the back.
“I don’t know how many of these have been given out over time or where or to whom. But I personally take pride in being picked as a representative of those who gave it all,” he said. “If there’s anything that ever made me eligible for this honor, I don’t know what it is. I just tried to be a good soldier.”
The Legion of Honor was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, and is given to reward military and civilian service to France. Wolfe certainly meets the qualifications, Lacroix said.
“Mr. Wolfe is not an average person. He played a significant role in the liberation of France in 1944. Of course, he was not alone, but he embodies the bravery of the soldiers of the Army,” he said. “This shows the bonds of solidarity that exist between my people, the French people, and the American people.”
During Tuesday’s ceremonies, Wolfe was feted as a hero. Both Franklin and Indianapolis declared Nov. 6, 2018, to be “Harry A. Wolfe Day.” Local military leaders such as Command Sgt. Maj. James Brown, director of the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs, and retired Maj. Gen. R. Martin Umbarger, former head of the Indiana National Guard, spoke about the impact Wolfe and his fellow soldiers made.
“World War II starts, he leaves and goes over to fight against injustices and tyrannies in the world, and to save the world, frankly. You and your fellow soldiers saved this world, as we know it today,” Umbarger said.
He was presented with letters from Vice President Mike Pence and Gov. Eric Holcomb honoring him.
“You truly embody what it means to be a Hoosier and an American in one of the country’s most difficult times,” Holcomb wrote.
But it was Lacroix’s address that drove home just how essential soldiers such as Wolfe were to the protection of the world as we know it.
“Without you, sir, without America, the French flag would not be here. It is as simple as that,” Lacroix said. “The French people will never forget the sacrifice of America’s greatest generation.”
Wolfe was a rifleman for Company G, 318th Infantry Regiment, 80th Infantry Division, under the command of Gen. George S. Patton. He joined the U.S. Army on March 28, 1944.
Growing up, he and his family had moved around to different towns in Indiana, including a time in Franklin. As World War II broke out, he was working at the Beech Grove Shops railroad maintenance facility. His job was considered critical to the war effort in order to transport troops, so he was not drafted into military service.
But as the war dragged on, he decided he needed to enlist.
“Everybody who lived in our society in those days realized that it was time we had to go to war. Our civilization was in terrible shape. Someone had to come forth and get rid of Nazism,” he said. “Thank God, we were the ones who went.”
Wolfe went from Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis to Camp Blanding, one of the primary training centers for replacement troops during the war. He was schooled in skills such as orienteering, marksmanship and lobbing grenades. His unit completed miles-long marches, spending nights at a time out in the Florida wilderness before finally completing a 25-mile hike.
The 17 weeks at the camp transformed him into a soldier.
“I was 130 pounds when I went in, and I gained a pound a week, so I was 147 pounds when I went to war,” he said.
Wolfe and his unit left the U.S. in September 1944 aboard the Ile of France, a luxury liner that had been repurposed as a troop ship. They arrived in Scotland, took a train to southern England and then was transported across the English Channel to Normandy Beach.
Throughout late September and October, he made his way to the front lines in eastern France. Even more than 70 years later, the terrible nature of war has stuck with Wolfe.
He remembers reaching France and seeing the burned out husks of trucks, tanks, and other machinery of war — all surrounded by dead bodies — that had been left behind the advancing lines. Trees contained shreds of clothing, which Wolfe later learned had come from female German look-outs and snipers who were killed by advancing troops.
Hastily made graves were everywhere for the fallen soldiers, and the stench of death was all around.
One of the most troubling incidents occurred just days before he was shot. He was standing watch one night, and had been warned the Germans were using horse-drawn wagons to replenish supplies and ammunition. When Wolfe heard the unmistakable sounds of horses and wagons from the distance, he phoned in to his artillery support to fire “300 yards at 11 o’clock.”
“I didn’t do anything more than hang up the phone when all hell broke loose,” he said.
The mortar struck a direct hit, and Wolfe was lauded for his awareness by his superiors. Not until the next morning, as American troops moved forward, did he witness the devastation that he had been responsible for.
“The ground was littered,” he said. “I won’t describe it if I don’t have to.”
On the day he was injured, Wolfe and his unit were slogging through mud and rain on a mission to cross the Seille River as the Army pushed towards Germany.
Machine gun fire and mortar rounds forced them to sprint across a flooded channel, sliding in the mud for cover. Moments later, Wolfe was struck with what he described as “like the kick of a mule.”
His fellow soldiers forced a pair of captured German medics to treat his wounds in hopes of saving his life. After the soldiers left, the Germans could have easily shot him, or left him to die. Instead, they cleaned and dressed the wound, put on a tourniquet and covered him in rain gear.
Wolfe was a member of the Masonic Lodge; he had been inducted as a Master Mason in the organization the night before he shipped off for war. His wife, Elsie, had given him a beautiful ring to mark the occasion and he was wearing the ring when he was shot.
With no other way to explain their compassion, Wolfe believes they may have recognized him as a Mason.
“These two medics stepped aside and started mumbling between the two of them. They must have seen my ring, because they gave me the best kind of treatment I could have,” he said. “I often wonder if that wasn’t a brother Mason.”
U.S. medics didn’t reach Wolfe until hours later. He was taken to a hospital nearby, where both American and German troops were being treated. Wolfe was placed among the Germans waiting for surgery on his leg, and seemed to be lost in the chaos.
An American chaplain happened to see him, and learned that enemy soldiers were being treated before him.
“First time I’ve ever seen a chaplain get angry. It wasn’t more than a few minutes that I was in surgery after that,” he said.
The following weeks and months were filled with surgeries as Wolfe tried to recover from his injury. Miraculously, the bullet that struck him had missed ligaments and the main artery, so his leg did not need to be amputated.
He was transported from France to England, eventually healing enough to board a ship home just before Christmas 1944. Upon arrival in Charleston, South Carolina, on Jan. 5, 1945, he and other wounded soldiers returning home were greeted by a military band.
Wolfe continued his rehabilitation in the U.S., first in Iowa then at Wakeman General Hospital at Camp Atterbury in southern Johnson County. Daily games of golf helped him strengthen the leg further, until he only needed a cane to walk.
Following the war, Wolfe worked in the finance department at Fort Harrison, then Job Corps and finally for the Internal Revenue Service in Indianapolis.
He lived much of his adult life in Vermont, Indiana and Arizona, and returned to Compass Park and the Indiana Masonic Home, where he had been living for the past seven weeks.
Even in that short time, Wolfe has had an impact on those around him, said Bill Pierce, administrator of the skilled nursing and rehabilitation center at Compass Park.
“Harry, to me, is the embodiment of an American soldier,” he said. “He’s a representation of what can happen in times of war. He’s representative of the battle scars, and those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.”
When he received a phone call a few weeks ago from the French Consulate that he would be honored, he didn’t know what to think. Even as he waited for the ceremony to start Tuesday, he grew emotional about the attention.
“Awesome comes to mind. Joy, happiness,” he said. “I’m beyond expression of what’s happening now. I’m not taken any credit for anything except being a representative of the American people, and in appreciation of what the French people are doing now.”
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Veteran’s Day events this weekend
9 a.m.: Greenwood VFW Post No. 5864 poppy drive, Lowe’s locations at 8850 Madison Ave., Indianapolis and 4444 S. Emerson Ave., Indianapolis; Tractor Supply, 1460 U.S. 31, Greenwood, and Walmart, 882 S. State Road 135, Greenwood. All of the proceeds will go toward the post’s relief fund that helps struggling veterans.
10 a.m.: Triumph Church, 99 W. Broadway St., Greenwood. Col. Todd Schmidt will speak.
2 p.m.: Greenwood American Legion Post No. 205, 334 U.S. 31 S., will have a lunch open to all veterans and their families. Greenwood Mayor Mark Myers will speak.
5 p.m.: Christ Our Shepherd Church of the Brethren, 857 N. SR 135, is hosting a free dinner for veterans and their families with a presentation to follow.
8:30 a.m.: Franklin Community Middle School, 625 Grizzly Cub Drive
9 a.m.: Webb Elementary School, 1400 Webb Court, Franklin. The fourth grade choir will perform a patriotic concert.
9 a.m.: East Side Elementary School, 810 E. Main Cross St., Edinburgh. Students will put on a program, with coffee and refreshments available for veterans beginning at 8:15 a.m.
9 a.m.: Creekside Elementary School, 700 E. State Road 44., Franklin. A convocation, preceded by breakfast for active-duty military at 8:30 a.m.
10:30 a.m.: Union Elementary School, 3990 W. Division Road, Bargersville
6:30 p.m.: Grace United Methodist Church and Boy Scout Troop No. 228 are hosting a program at the church, 1300 E. Adams Drive, Franklin. A reception will follow the program.
3 p.m.: The Greenwood City Court’s veteran’s treatment program will host a tribute to veterans in the city court, 186 Surina Way. A graduate of the Greenwood veterans program will speak about his experiences in the military and the program. A new video about veterans and the Greenwood Veterans Treatment Court also will be unveiled.