Surrounded by community members, World War II veteran Daniel DeFrancisco was moved to tears last week at the Riverhead Senior Center’s Senior Prom as he took the microphone and fielded questions related to his wartime experience.
For the 89-year-old, that experience included the recent international recognition he received for his part in the war.
On May 9, Mr. DeFrancisco joined 33 other American World War II veterans who were decorated as knights of France’s Legion of Honor — France’s highest decoration — during a ceremony at West Point Military Academy.
One of hundreds who received the medal, Mr. DeFrancisco was honored for risking his life during the war while fighting on French territory.
And he took time to show the medal to others who attended last week’s Senior Prom.
Dating back to 1802, Legion of Honor medals were established by then-emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, according to the French Consulate.
Earlier this month, the consul general of France presented the World War II veterans with the medal in acknowledgment of their role in helping to liberate France from the Nazi occupation.
“It was wonderful — they gave it to us after 70 years,” Mr. DeFrancisco said. He added that his friend Joe Edler, a fellow Veterans of Foreign Wars Van Rensselaer-Skidmore Post 2476 of Riverhead member, accompanied him to the upstate N.Y. ceremony.
Mr. DeFrancisco is no stranger to recognition and high military distinctions.
“I was awarded a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star,” he said. “I have been in five different campaigns. The last is how I got the Silver Star.”
When asked how he felt talking about the war, Mr. DeFrancisco said he takes questions as they come.
“It’s alright sometimes, and sometimes it’s sad,” he said. “Sometimes it’s bad and sometimes it isn’t so bad.”
He was just 19 when he enlisted in 1943 and turns 90 next month.
On June 6, 1944 — the first day of the invasion of Normandy known as D-Day and the largest seaborne invasion in history — the Brooklyn native moved in with his unit, the 87th Chemical Mortar Battalion.
It was armed with 4.2-inch chemical mortars capable of firing highly explosive shells, according to 4Point2.org, a website devoted to telling the individual stories of different Chemical Mortar Battalions, including Mr. DeFrancisco’s.
“I landed in Utah Beach right after the infantry, about an hour after,” he said. “When we landed on D-Day, the water was so rough.
“At first you don’t feel anything. You don’t know to be afraid,” he said. “When they started shelling us, that’s when you really knew that you were in the war. That’s when you really knew.”
Among some of Mr. DeFrancisco’s toughest moments were witnessing the loss of his friends and other fellow soldiers.
“We supported the infantry,” he said. “Wherever they called us, we went. We were waiting for the infantry to move when, about five feet away [from me], my friend Schmitty got killed right in front of me. He was killed by a shell.”
He also recalled passing glidermen who flew into combat inside unarmed and unarmored canvas-covered glider planes.
“It was very dangerous for them,” he said. “There were trees there, high hedges. They couldn’t land. When we went by [a crash] we would see the American soldiers hanging out the window. It was awful to see.”
But Mr. DeFrancisco said he remembers small victories as well.
“When we landed, we got our weapons set up and dug in,” he said. “Our observer, who was in with the infantry, would tell us when to fire and what to fire. After a while, we heard him say ‘Fire at will.’ ”
The German’s were making a counter attack, Mr. DeFrancisco explained.
“We fired and fired, and we didn’t stop firing,” he said. “We stopped them from coming with our guns. It felt wonderful then.”