Culture

World War II combat engineer to receive French Legion of Honor

Despite not being part of a combat unit, Charles Hardy captured dozens of POWs and took part in the Battle of the Bulge.
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Charles Hardy (left) during World War II. (Photo courtesy the Hardy family)

More than 75 years after he returned stateside, Charles Hardy is receiving an award for his military service in France during World War II. The former Army combat engineer will be declared a Knight of the Legion of Honor on Dec. 4.

The former soldier and retired railroad foreman will receive the honor at the French consulate in Washington, D.C. next week. Born in Cumberland, Maryland, Hardy joined the U.S. Army in July 1943. He initially served with the 1053rd Engineer Port Construction and Repair Group, training in the United Kingdom for the invasion of France. His unit didn’t participate in D-Day, but instead landed in continental Europe in August, with the mission of repairing ports to unload needed supplies for both the fighting and humanitarian concerns. But that didn’t mean they didn’t encounter any resistance or run into remnants of the German army. 

“When we got to Cherbourg, our job was to repair that port,” Charles Hardy told the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project. “They had damaged the port, they had sunk ships in the channel so they couldn’t get into it.”

(Photo collage courtesy Hardy family)

But the unit was quickly sent to Brest, which led to his biggest action in the war — and the main reason for the French honor. In his own words, the city was “torn up” from the fighting. The main infantry had advanced inward, leaving Brest and its important submarine pens for the construction and repair teams. The American soldiers approached, with Hardy and his sergeant sent to investigate. They realized they were facing 70 armed German soldiers hiding out inside the submarine pen. But the Germans realized they were beaten and Hardy and his sergeant took all of them captive. One photo taken from the day shows the Germans marching in a line, all now prisoners of war. 

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After Brest, Hardy’s repair work took him elsewhere to St. Malo and Liege, working on fixing ports and railroads. He was now with the Army when the Battle of the Bulge began. He was one of the American troops cut off by the Germans facing intense barrages. Hardy took part in the battle, mostly trying to survive like his fellow soldiers. In his interview for the Veterans History Project, he noted the seriousness of the bombardments. “They were really demoralizing. After a while, you didn’t know if you’d get it or not.” 

After the Germans were pushed back and the Battle of the Bulge ended, Hardy and a few others were transferred to Company B, 282nd Engineer Combat Battalion in January 1945. When victory was declared in Europe he had just crossed into Austria.

“We wasn’t a shooting outfit, but we sure did take a lot of beating from bombs,” he said.

He returned stateside and left the service in December 1945 with the rank of technical sergeant 4th class (he still has his DD214). After the war, Hardy finished his apprenticeship and worked for 40 years as a railroad foreman. He married; his wife passed away six years ago. He now lives with his grandson Alex Hardy.

But after the war, Charles Hardy didn’t talk about his experiences. It wasn’t until the 1990s when he reconnected with his wartime buddies, Alex Hardy told Task & Purpose. Now a member of the Battle of the Bulge Association, he heard through fellow members that he was likely eligible for the French Legion of Honor. 

Veterans and their families have to apply for the honor from France, which determines whether to award it based on the service member’s record and distinctions in combat. So Hardy, with his grandson’s help, applied in 2022. They did not hear back until this year. 

The younger Hardy, who also served in the Army from 2007-2012, said that his grandfather would tell his family some of the war stories, but he opened up more when Alex came back from Iraq. The news of the French honor has led to Charles telling more about his experiences in Europe during World War II. 

“For the longest time, he didn’t think he was going to get it. Since the word he’s getting it, he’s started sharing some new memories,” Alex Hardy told Task & Purpose.  

Hardy is one of several World War II veterans to receive the French award in recent months. In October, retired tech corporal John Gojermac was awarded Knight of the Legion of Honor for his actions fighting across Italy and France. Capt. Joe Kenneth Jones received the National Order of the Legion of Honor last month at the age of 100. 

Charles Hardy will be awarded the Knight of the Legion of Honor on Dec. 4 at the French consulate in Washington, D.C. 

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