French honor McKeesport soldier for valor during WWII

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Sixty-eight years after James Stevens sacrificed his early 20s for the liberation of France, the country's government took the opportunity Sunday to say thank you.

Stevens, a native of McKeesport, was posthumously awarded the Legion of Honor, the highest decoration in France for military and civilians, in a ceremony at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland.

The award was accepted from the French honorary consulate by Stevens' widow, Rena Stevens. But Mrs. Stevens said her husband was watching from above, because he was informed of the honor before his death in November in Gibsonia. He was 92.

"He was so very touched," said Stevens' daughter, Marian Roche. "The first thing he said was, 'I lost so many friends out there.' "

Stevens, who was also a recipient of the Purple Heart, spent four years fighting in World War II. In addition to France, he spent time in North Africa, Italy, Germany and Austria as an Army technician, 5th class (now called a specialist).

Except for the nightmares his family heard the veteran experiencing, he rarely spoke of the war until very late in his life.

"At the end, I heard about the concentration camps, the stacks of bodies, the horrible things he witnessed," said James Stevens, one of his four children. "But before, he always wanted to shelter us from that."

Stevens' immediate family learned of the many feats of his unit, the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion, through the research of their cousin, Maj. Gen. John E. Stevens, who nominated Stevens for the Legion of Honor.

During Sunday's presentation, Gen. Stevens described how the 601st Battalion was responsible for the liberation of the Colmar Pocket, the last area in France held by the Germans in 1945. This was one of the two occasions that the 601st received the highest honor given by the U.S. government to a military unit, the Presidential Citation Award.

Stevens suffered a grave head injury during his service that left him blind for nearly a month. When the Army attempted to send him home after his recovery, Stevens refused to let it happen. He found a way to make it back to his unit so he could continue to defend his country and the men he came to fight with.

"This award is an authentic acknowledgement of the sacrifice of my uncle's generation," Gen. Stevens said. "He was in combat 546 days of his young life."

Jean-Dominique Le Garrec, French honorary consul, echoed that message, expressing the importance of the relationship between France and the United States.

"From our shared values and our shared struggle was born a friendship, dating all the way back to America's fight for independence," Mr. Le Garrec said.

The ceremony ended with "Ave Maria" played on violin by John Irrera, the fiance of one of Stevens' granddaughters. More than a few tissues were exchanged at the moment, as Stevens' three most dearly held values -- faith, family and country -- came together.

"He was a wonderful soldier and a wonderful man," Mrs. Stevens said. "I wish he could have been here. But maybe it means more this way."

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Jessica Contrera: or 412-263-1458. Twitter: @mjcontrera.


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