Toft Jessen was in his early twenties when he took part in Normandy’s D-Day landings in June 1944. Today, France honours him with the highest order of merit that exists.
The D-Day landings of the Allied forces on June 6 1944 marked the beginning of the end of WWII. Toft Jessen, a 23-old American soldier from San Leandro, California, was part of the U.S Army glider squadron that flew advance missions for incoming Allied troops on D-Day. Landing on the French coast of Normandy, Jessen began fighting in what is called the “longest day” and survived to fight on for many other days during the war.
Jessen is now 102 years old and was bestowed the Legion of Honor from France by Frederic Jung, Consul General of France in San Francisco, at a recent ceremony in Dublin, California. This is a year before the upcoming 80th Anniversary of D-Day.
“Jessen is being honored because he risked his life to serve his country during WWII and help liberate our country,” said Consul General Jung. “American veterans who fought in France in one of the four main campaigns of liberation qualify to be decorated as Knights in the Legion of Honor.”
The Legion of Honor is France’s highest award and is given to individuals who have made outstanding contributions to France. The award is given to French or foreign nationals for achievements in many areas ranging from literature to science to the military.
It was French President François Hollande who, in 2014, declared that all Allied veterans that fought for the liberation of France during WWII would be awarded a Legion of Honor. To be eligible, living veterans of any US branch of the military must have fought in the four main campaigns (Normandy, Provence, Ardennes or Northern France) for the liberation of France between October 1943 and May 1945.
To be considered for the Legion of Honor, eligible veterans fill out an application and, along with military records and honorable discharge, submit it to their closest French Consulate. Applications are verified to meet requirements and submitted for review and validation to the French Ambassador in Washington, D.C. before being sent to la Grande Chancellerie, the Legion of Honor committee in Paris. Once approved, the French President signs a decree that allows the veteran to be honored.
According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, about 167,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in WWII were alive in 2022. The process of aging will bring that number to less than 100,000 by the time the 80th anniversary is celebrated in 2024 as participants in D-Day would be in their 80s, 90s and early 100s. It was a young and brave group of soldiers who stormed the beaches and beyond.
Read More: The American Soldier Who Fought for France
Jessen started his combat career on D-Day and stayed in Europe until December 1945. Born in 1921, he graduated from San Leandro High School and was selected to join the New York Yankees baseball system with the goal of becoming a professional player. A few days after turning 22, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and trained in Colorado. Because of his professional athletic background, he was chosen to join the glider squadron. On February 29, 1944, he arrived in Italy and was sent to Marseille, France, then on to Normandy. He spent the rest of the war fighting in various parts of France and was subsequently transferred to Germany as the U.S Army and Allied forces progressively liberated France. Jessen left Europe on December 13 1945 as a Private First Class and came back to the United States where he was discharged from the U.S. Army on January 7 1946.
After the war, he returned to civilian life in the San Francisco Bay Area and became an officer for the Oakland Police Department. His career lasted 36 years and he received numerous awards for service distinction.
“Toft Jessen participated in the liberation of France in 1944, risking his life for the freedom of the French people,” said Consul General Jung. “By awarding him the Legion of Honor, France demonstrates it has not forgotten Jessen’s heroic actions some 80 years ago and expresses its solemn recognition. As time goes by, it is our absolute duty to perpetuate this memory for the generations to come.”
Lead photo credit : Consul General Frederic Jung (left) with Toft Jessen wearing the Legion of Honor
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