Delaware veteran receives France’s highest honor
Ernest Marvel has a crate full of medals in his house in Frankford.
He received his newest addition, the French Legion of Honour, in July – nearly 80 years after helping liberate the country from the Germans in World War II.
Marvel, now 98, has rarely left the Bethany Beach area except for the war.
“I am a home boy,” he says.
He speaks fondly of his family. His garden is his pride and his joy. He enjoys dancing and singing karaoke on weekends at the local VFW and Eagles Club.
But Marvel also has dark memories of another era, when the heroes had to fight across Europe to free thousands of people held in concentration camps under the control of Adolf Hitler.
He was one of those heroes.
In 1945, Marvel passed through French and German villages, crossed the Rhine and came to the gates of Dachau.
Marvel’s War Story
Pfc. Marvel entered the war late, just after the Battle of the Bulge, according to historian Eric Montgomery. A member of the US Army’s B Company, 179th Infantry Regiment, 1st Battalion, 45th Infantry Division, the 20-year-old traveled to Europe aboard the troopship Queen Elizabeth.
One of Marvel’s first missions, according to Montgomery, was to crawl “through an enemy-held field (strewn) with mines and booby-traps.”
“We had to climb from foxhole to foxhole to get to our headquarters and let them know where we were,” Marvel said. “Each foxhole had two Germans in it, but they were kids. They were maybe 15 or 16 and they were scared to death.
His division crossed the Rhine in storm boats as the Germans fired mortars at them.
“About three boats from me a mortar shell landed and it exploded,” Marvel said. “We were about halfway there. It could have been us.
From there the soldiers traveled to Germany, taking village after village, often house by house.
“I was a bazooka for quite a while, knocking the wheels off a tank so it couldn’t move. I would fire a phosphorus grenade into the turret, and it would get so hot they would have to come out. Some would come out fighting, others with their hands up,” Marvel said.
It also shelled German soldiers firing from perches in church steeples.
“I heard them for ages, screaming as they exploded,” Marvel said.
He became thoughtful as he spoke.
“It’s not a good feeling,” he said. “I’m better.”
Marvel said he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. After the war, he woke up his wife at night when he had flashbacks. Eventually, he got help from a psychiatrist.
“He said my problem was that everything was bottled up inside me; I wouldn’t let him out. He said, “You start letting it out and you’ll feel better.” And I did. I started talking about different things to different people and it started to come back, but it still didn’t leave my mind,” he said.
Liberation of the Dachau concentration camp
Some of the trauma he experienced took place during the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. Marvel’s memories are vivid of the horrific place where thousands were killed.
“There was about half a mile of concrete road, and they had a big brick German barracks on either side of the road. Between the two was a tree with white bark,” he said.
Marvel and his comrades moved through the buildings and killed or took prisoner the German soldiers inside.
Elsewhere on the grounds, he opened a covered wagon, to find him and several others like him full of bodies.
“The smell was terrible. They had… big incinerators that they burned them with and they couldn’t burn them so fast that they died,” he said.
That day, US soldiers found more than 30 wagonloads of bodies brought to Dachau, all in an advanced state of decomposition, according to the US National Holocaust Memorial Museum.
He was shocked by the condition of the prisoners still alive inside the camp, who were starving and plagued by disease.
“Have you seen ‘The Walking Dead’?” Marvel asked about the zombie apocalypse TV series. “They looked worse than that. They were dying of malnutrition. They were skin and bones, and their eyes were sunken into their heads.
Soldiers “threw candy bars and cigarettes over the barbed wire at starving prisoners until ordered to stop,” according to the National World War II Museum’s July 2022 article, “The last days of the Dachau concentration camp”, but most of them remained outside the main compound of “fear of disease”.
“Medical personnel came, regulated the food and water supply for malnourished people and set up a typhus ward to respond to the outbreak of this dreaded disease in the camp,” the report said.
US forces freed 32,000 prisoners at Dachau, according to the Holocaust Memorial Museum.
A link to the present
The only injury Marvel said he sustained during the war was from being hit by shrapnel to the arm. He still has a scar.
“Our general…he wanted us to take this village. He said they had flown over and the reconnaissance planes had seen no activity,” he said. “We came out halfway through the field. Day was breaking and they started shooting at us. … And shrapnel was flying everywhere.
Marvel was one of eight out of 28 men to survive the attack, he said.
One of the soldiers who didn’t survive was Orla Moninger, a man Marvel had become close friends with since arriving in Europe, he said. When they returned to collect the bodies the next day, Moninger’s hand was over his heart, holding photos of his family, Marvel said.
Marvel’s grandson Donnie Carey knew Moninger from the stories his grandfather shared. He began to wonder if the fallen soldier had any family still alive. The historian he was working with, Montgomery, discovered that Moninger did indeed have a living son, and Carey named him.
“He said he heard that (his father) was getting off a train in Germany and he was shot,” Carey said, recalling the conversation with Moninger’s son. “The hair stood up on my arm because I knew I had information that he had never heard. … It was right before the holidays and he was like, ‘I have a story that I can tell now.’ It was a great moment.”
A grandson, a country singer and the Legion of Honor
Carey said he became interested in learning more about his grandfather’s wartime period about six years ago. It was then that his wife read “The Diary of Anne Frank”, the well-known writings of a young Jewish girl who spent two years in hiding from the Nazis with her family and who eventually died in a concentration camp. concentration.
“She said, ‘You know, your grandfather went through a lot in Dachau,’ and I just realized how honored I was to still have the opportunity to help her and learn from her. him,” Carey said. “He is my hero.”
Carey and the rest of the extended Marvel family surprised him last summer when they took him to see country music singer Jamey Johnson at the Freeman Arts Pavilion in Selbyville. Johnson gave a shout out to Marvel before singing “In Color,” a song about a veteran.
The family took to the front of the stage and Johnson said, “Thank you for your sacrifice, sir.” He then came downstairs and gave Marvel a handshake, a hug, and some guitar shots.
The moment video was posted online, and one of those who viewed it reached out to Carey to let people know that Marvel had qualified for the Legion of Honor, France‘s highest honor.
“I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help him get recognition while he’s still here,” Carey said.
Marvel turned 98 in May.
This summer, he contracted pneumonia in addition to COVID-19, but recovered in time for the Legion of Honor ceremony in Washington, DC. It took place on the eve of July 14, France’s most remarkable patriotic holiday. Marvel and two other American World War II veterans received the award from French Ambassador Philippe Etienne.
The award was created in 1802 “to reward outstanding service to France by military and civilian personnel,” Etienne said.
On average, 2,200 French people and 300 foreigners are decorated each year, according to the Legion of Honor website.