“This award testifies to President Hollande’s high esteem for your merits and accomplishment,” said Francois DeLattre, French Ambassador in a June 12 letter. “In particular, it is a sign of France’s infinite gratitude and appreciation for your personal and precious contribution to the United States’ decisive role in the liberation of our country during World War II.”
The Legion of Honor was created by Napoleon in 1802 to acknowledge services rendered to France by persons of exceptional merit.
According to a letter from Bertrand Lortholary, Consulate General for France in New York, Sanchez will receive the insignia of the Legion of Honor during an official ceremony held at the French High School of New York on Nov. 8 where Guy Wildenstein, president of the American Society of the French Legion of Honor, will bestow the medals.
Sanchez served in the U.S. Navy and was part of the amphibious force that landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.
He had enlisted only a few months earlier, and was assigned to the signal corps in the role of flag man. It was humorously called “Skivvy waver,” although his job was considered one of the most risky of the campaign since he was required to provide signals to various troops during the height of combat. This meant that he was often exposed to enemy fire. Sanchez received a Bronze Star from the Navy for his contributions during that campaign.
Sanchez served as a signalman in the Navy, using lights and flags to communicate messages between ships and in other circumstances. In battle, communication is often a problem.
During D-Day, the German soldiers had dug holes in the beach which threatened to swallow Allied troops as they landed. Someone was needed to signal their location. Sanchez volunteered to land with the troops, and then stood on the front of the landing craft amid enemy fire to relay signals to warn troops of the holes.
“I volunteered to go to the beaches,” Sanchez said. “I was only 17 years old. I entered service on Jan. 31, 1944 and I was on the beaches on June 6. I went to boot camp, but the only training I had for this was the training I got prior to and during the invasion.”
He was aboard a small landing craft that hit the beaches with the troops on the first wave, he said.
After his duties as a signalman were dispensed with, he was part of the crew that helped rescue wounded soldiers from the beach and get them back onto craft where they could get medical attention. This involved picking the wounded out of the water and bringing them back to the hospital ships for treatment.
Sanchez later worked as part of a military escort, and served in both the European and later the Pacific theaters.
Previous to this, Sanchez was honored by the United States, France, and Taiwan as well as New Jersey and New York.
Sanchez meets Spielberg
Ironically, in the fall of 2004, legendary movie director Stephen Spielberg knocked on the door of Sanchez’s Kennedy Boulevard home in Bayonne asking to use the place as a set for his movie “War of the Worlds.”
Spielberg has a particular fascination for the D-Day invasion and his depiction in the 1998 film “Saving Private Ryan" is considered one of the most realistic portrayals.
While touring Sanchez's house, Spielberg came to a room near the rear he intended to use as the kitchen in the film. Sanchez used it as a den, where he kept many mementoes from his military career.
“He saw all my medals and flags,” he said. "He noticed some were from Normandy."
“You were in Normandy?" Spielberg asked Sanchez.
"I told him I was," Sanchez recalled. "Then I told him about my experiences."
Spielberg didn't comment.
“He looked at me, nodded, but he didn't say a word," Sanchez said.
Sanchez has served in various veterans groups since leaving the service in 1946.
Locally, he has been active in the March of Dimes, Concerned Citizens of Bayonne, United Cerebral Palsy of Hudson County, the National Conference for Community and Justice, the Bayonne Historic Society, The United Way of Hudson County, The Bayonne American Red Cross, and other organizations. He has been honored by each of these and other organizations for his community service and has served in prominent positions in most of the organizations in which he has been involved.
He is also a trustee on the Bayonne Community Museum, Inc., and until recently was the chairman of the Bayonne Local Redevelopment Agency.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.