By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
“Private First Class Reuben Downer,” said the man with the outrageous French accent. “As a member of the 29th Infantry front-line combat division, you were on one of the first landing crafts to arrive at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Of the 35 soldiers on the craft, you were one of five men to make it to the beach and one of three who successfully crossed it.”
It was one day last September in an American Legion post in the Atlanta suburbs, and Dade County’s Reuben Coolidge Downer was being decorated for liberating France during World War II.
When this newspaper interviewed Downer for its series on WWII veterans in October of 2008, he already had an impressive collection of medals on display at his Sand Mountain home. He’d received the Bronze Star as well as the Purple Heart, which is awarded to soldiers wounded in battle: Though Downer had somehow made it unscathed through the D-Day invasion at Normandy – 6,600 other American GIs did not – he took a bullet in the shoulder during the subsequent fighting at St. Lo as the 29th pressed further into France.
So Downer had already mopped up most of the honors Uncle Sam kept in his bag. Now he was moving on to – well, listen:
“On behalf of the French republic and the French people, I want to say thank you,” said Pascal Le Deunff, France’s Consul General at Atlanta. “We are immensely grateful for all that you did to liberate France in 1944 and 1945. Today, we remember, we honor and we celebrate your bravery by presenting you with the most prestigious decoration that France has to bestow, the National Order of the Legion of the Honor.”
Through a Feb. 11, 2011, decree by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Downer had become a chevalier, or knight, of the Ordre National de la Legion d’Honneur, established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. As Monsieur Le Deunff noted, the Order is France’s highest military honor – but somehow it’s not a bit surprising the French chose to give it to the Dade County homeboy his buddies call R.C.
There’s just something about the guy. All the veterans in the Sentinel’s 2008 series told fascinating stories about World War II. Downer’s sounded like it needed a movie made of it.
Maybe part of it was that he was drop-dead handsome. The cracked black-and-white photographs from the time show a jaunty, smiling G.I. more likely to be played by Steve McQueen than Gary Cooper, and reading between the lines of Downer’s war story one discerns a certain fascination for him on the part of the European girls who were among the few perks of his military service.
In the 2008 interview, Downer, who was sent to England in 1943 to train for the invasion, told the Sentinel how crazy it drove the underpaid, underdressed, already war-weary British soldiers to see American GIs strolling down the road with an English girl on either arm. Downer did not deny he might have had his hands pretty full himself.
And he admitted later, stationed after the armistice in Germany with the occupation, to egregious acts of fraternization with the enemy, or at least such of the enemy as wore skirts. “The German girls, they had a thing for the American soldiers, too,” he told the Sentinel.
So that’s part of it, but the main thrust is probably Downer’s actual war experience. Downer’s view of World War II is the one subsequent filmmakers have focused on the most, beginning with the iconic storming of the beach at Normandy and ending in the German surrender.
In the Sentinel’s archives you can read Downer’s account of how he struggled from his landing craft to Omaha Beach through choppy, chin-high waves that drowned most of his comrades. Then, as one of the few of that first wave to make it across the beach alive, he sheltered against a ridge and watched men die and the world around him explode. He was 19.
After his wound at St. Lo, Downer was shipped back to England for five weeks’ recuperation, but otherwise he was with the Allies’ push from Normandy all the way up through France, Belgium, the Netherlands and into Der Vaterland itself.
As an infantryman, Downer fought hedgerow to hedgerow, liberating Europe one village at a time. He saw civilian deaths and he witnessed in shock what was left of the victims of Dachau. He was within 20 miles of Berlin when the order came to stand down and let the Russians take it. “I said, Lordy, let them have it, I don’t want no part of it,” he said.
Getting the idea? Downer’s story reads like an encapsulation of the American World War II experience in Western Europe, already the subject of a film or two.
The French government flew Downer back to France in 2004 to be thanked in a 60th anniversary D-Day ceremony for freeing their country from the Germans. That would have been epilogue enough, but the French are an effusive people and last summer Downer began receiving yet more letters festooned with phrases like, “With endless respect and affection,” and “infinite gratitude and appreciation.”
The story wasn’t quite over: Downer’s presence was required in Atlanta to receive one more honor, this time the highest the French had to give.
In 2008, Downer told the Sentinel his dashing story modestly but with ineffable style. On Saturday, when the Sentinel arrived to take his picture with his Legion of Honor award, Downer, now 87 and in failing health, had less to say.
He spends his days tended by a hospice sitter and the evenings cared for by his wife, Charlotte. Charlotte says she reads to him sometimes about the war, She says he watched the movie Saving Private Ryan and told her it was the most realistic D-Day movie he’d seen.
He didn’t have that much to say to the Sentinel this time, but he did muster some of the old charm for a few more words about the war. He said of the Nazis: “They thought they were supermen. They found out different when they tangled with us. Americans are peace-loving people but when you get them stirred up to a certain point, you better get out of the way.”
And of the Legion of Honor award, Downer said, “It was a wonderful feeling. Made me feel like I was somebody, almost.”