Napoleon Light, proudly wearing the Legion of Honor ribbon, which was awarded by the French government in 2012 as a survivor of the liberation of France in World War II. Light is one of only 249 Americans to be honored with the award, the highest civilian honor the French can award.
Photo by Shawn Ryan.
Peru Napoleon Light went to Europe, he says, by rail — hugging the rail of one of the three transport ships that brought 15,000 American soldiers to England to prepare for D-Day, wracked by sea-sickness.
But fortunately for Light he wasn’t a sailor, he was a soldier, and he was bound for solid ground in Europe. After training for months in England, Light boarded another ship at South Hampton, this time bound for a departure point off of Omaha Beach. He went ashore on Omaha Beach on D+3, or three days after the initial D Day invasion on June 6, 1944. He would spend the rest of the war slogging his way through Europe with the 30th Infantry, known as Old Hickory.
“I was scared, but I wasn’t alone,” Light said. “We knew where we were going. We were ready for combat. We had trained for it, but we weren’t anxious for the trip across.”
Omaha Beach was still very much a war zone when Light came ashore. Artillery bombings and strafing by German Messerschmitts were a constant companion as the 30th began the slow drive through the European highlands. When they made it far enough inland, Light said, the famous French hedge-rows offered a small measure of safety from the incoming onslaught. Even so, Light got very proficient at diving into shallow slit trenches when the roaring of the Messerschmitts appeared overhead.
“We were glad to get behind those hedge-rows and dig in, because we were pretty safe from incoming shells and machine-gun fire. I remember a strafing in Normandy by a couple of Messerschmitts. It’s lucky we were able to get down behind them because they were really giving us heck.”
On July 15 Allied armies broke through German lines at St. Lo, and Light’s division was sent north into Belgium. Another part of his Division turned south and took part in the liberation of Paris.