WILMORE, Ky. -- Army Pvt. Alvin H. Perry's assignment was a cleanup mission in the aftermath of Operation Overlord’s invasion of the Normandy beaches by allied forces.
It would prove to be anything but.
His 331st Infantry Regiment of the 83rd Infantry Division arrived at Omaha Beach 12 days after D-Day, on June 18, proceeding up the steep cliffs to the rural French town of Carentan, a strategic goal of the World War II landings, where it encountered stiff German resistance.
The 20-year-old Perry was shot in the shoulder, captured and saved from bleeding to death by German doctors, became a prisoner of war and forced into hard labor for 10 months. Many of his fellow soldiers were killed.
Today, at 95, he still can't believe he survived the hedge row to hedge row combat.
“I wondered how I could live through it all and how I could get back home," Perry said. "I didn't think the chances were very good."
On June 6, the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Perry will receive France’s highest distinction -- the Legion of Honor Medal -- for his heroism in helping liberate the country from German occupation.
The presentation will be made by French Counsel General to the Midwest, Guillaume LaCroix, at the Thomas-Hood Veterans Center in Wilmore, Kentucky, where Perry resides. He will add it to his other medals, including those for Prisoner of War, Good Conduct, WWII Victory and the Purple Heart.
Perry is one of the ever-dwindling living witnesses to the heroism, devastation, tragedy and ultimate triumph on the shores and villages of Normandy in June of 1944. He still remembers the experioence like it was yesterday.
From the farm to combat
Born and raised in Anderson County, Kentucky, Perry was working on the family farm when he received his draft notice in the mail in 1943.
"I was scared," Perry said. "My father didn't like anything about the Army. He saw World War I so his thoughts rubbed off on me. I dreaded going and I was very sad."
Within a year Perry and his fellow soldiers of the 331st were on a ship, the USS Wakefield, crossing the English Channel to the Normandy region of France.
"The general told us before we went in we were going in for a cleanup," Perry recalled. "He didn't know how strong they (Germans) were. It was a lot more."
His regiment was shuttled to Omaha Beach in an amphibious vehicle. He saw the steep cliffs and marveled at the courage of those who went before him. In short order, his infantry unit was battling the Germans in heavy fighting at nearby Carentan, an intermediate staging position needed for the capture of critical port facilities in Cherbourg, France.
One day later, on July 19, 1944, he was shot and wounded.
"We decided to withdraw from our line position and during our withdrawal I got hit with a bullet in my shoulder," he said. "I went to the (medic) to ask him to help me. He said he couldn't help me, that he was hit in both legs.”
Perry promptly rejoined his unit led by a lieutenant colonel.
“He was taking us out of there,” said Perry. “He was in a little path that led out of there. We were right behind him and he run right into the Germans. Right smack dab into them. We were told drop our arms, put our hands up. So that's what we did.”
Perry and roughly 10 or so fellow soldiers were captured and marched off into the darkness.
Life as a POW
"The Germans took us up to their headquarters which was an old house," Perry said. "I had a couple of pills, all the soldiers did, and if you got hurt you were supposed to take them. You also had to drink a lot of water. I asked one of the Germans, he had a canteen, for a drink of water. He gave me his canteen and I took a drink of it and it was cider. It wasn't water. So I took enough so the pills would be all right."
The wounded Perry doubted his ability to survive.
"I lost a lot of blood," he said. "My shoulder hurt so bad I could hardly stand it and I didn't have anything to eat for a day or two,” he continued. "The next morning (a German soldier) who speaks English asked me if I wanted him to help me up and I said no. But I couldn't get up...I'd lost so much blood I was weak.
"He was going to get me a way to the hospital," Perry said. "Their ambulance was a pickup truck ... and we went to a field hospital and the German doctors operated on my shoulder. Gave me a blood transfusion.
“I didn't know whether I was going to survive or not. The Germans that morning wanted to give me cereal to eat. I thought, well 'they might poison me' so no I didn't want anything. Well you need to eat something. So I did eat some oatmeal."
After a period of hospitalization in Rouen, France, he was first transferred to Stalag XII-A, a prison camp in Limburg, Germany. He remained there for a couple of weeks before being transferred to Stalag VII-A in Moosburg Germany.
Perry was registered as a POW by the Germans. His family in Kentucky spent 20 days questioning whether he was alive or dead. The surgery by the Germans not only likely saved Perry's life, it also provided a window for his family to receive information that he was alive.
What followed afterward were long train rides and10 months of hard labor in Germany as a prisoner of war.
"We had to work," Perry said. "We worked on the railroad. We went to Munich. It was cold in Germany. It was about zero probably."
Freedom finally came in the form of the Army’s 42nd Armored Division rolling their tanks through Germany.
"The 42nd came through and liberated us," Perry said. "In tanks. It was a beautiful day. We were in Munich living in box cars. Then one day all the guards left. Every one of them. We didn't have anyone to guard us. So we stayed where we were, About 2 p.m. the American tanks went through with a big star on them and we knew."
Perry said the key to survival under dire circumstances was the daily will to persist.
“We worked day to day,” he said. “Tomorrow came and on and on. Nothing more than that."
Hero chapter in a veteran’s book
Much of Perry's story wasn't fully documented until a Kentucky man, Denny Hart, committed to researching and telling the tales of countless veterans, wrote a book called “Soldiers Anthology” that included a chapter about Perry.
Hart, himself a veteran, described Perry as an American hero. He petitioned the French government in 2017 to consider Perry for the French Legion of Honor.
"All of 2017 went by, all of 2018 went by and I thought it was not going to happen. I'd pretty much written it off," Hart said. "Finally one day on December 21st of last year ... my cell phone comes over my speaker on my radio. It was the French consulate general's office. They said Mr. Alvin Houston Perry has been approved for the French Legion of Honor."
The recognition, said Perry, “makes me feel bigger and better.”
Glenn Puit is editor of the Ashland, Kentucky, Daily Independent. Reach him at gpuit@dailyindependent. Com.