Out of eternal gratitude, France awarded the Legion of Honor to a Kennesaw man Friday morning for his efforts in World War II to liberate Europe from Germany.
In a ceremony at the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead, Richard “Dick” Bailey, who recently celebrated his 91st birthday, was given the Legion of Honor by the French consulate.
Bailey, who was a First Lieutenant with the 322nd Bombardment Group in the Army Air Corps, was one of 11 veterans honored at the event that U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson attended.
When Denis Barbet, the consul general of France in Atlanta, pinned the medal, Bailey said “it was an honor 70 years in the making, but he did not kiss me on both checks.”
Bailey said after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, he was one of many men in a long line wanting to enlist.
As a 20-year-old man at the time, Bailey said he did not think about the possibility of dying, because like most young men, Bailey thought he would live forever.
Bailey is the only member of his squadron still alive, and said they all had a single purpose during those days when he shared a tent with five comrades.
“The average guy, including myself, never let yourself get too close to a buddy because the next day he may not be there,” Bailey said.
A pilot’s story
Raised in Johnson City in upstate New York during the Great Depression, Bailey worked on a milk truck before school each day and had a paper route at night.
On Sundays, he washed planes and sold tickets at a nearby airport and was paid in flight lessons. By 17, Bailey had earned his solo pilot’s license.
After enlisting in the Army Air Corps, now the Air Force, Bailey quickly proved himself as an aviation cadet.
In January 1944, Bailey took his commissioned B-26 Martin Marauder from the Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah to Europe, via the southern route through South America and West Africa.
Bailey said that as he headed over the ocean, he was ready to make use of his nine months of training.
“We were looking to start combat fighting,” he said.
If the weather was right and it was his squadron’s turn to fly, Bailey said he would go on a mission a day. On one special day, Baily had three.
On June 6, 1944 — D-Day — nothing seemed to be going right when the allied forces landed on the French coastline, which was a strategic starting point for the march across Europe.
Bailey said in the early morning, the pilots were supposed to drop bombs along the beach to make craters for the troops who would later be running out of ships reaching the shore.
But it was so overcast, and for fear of dropping the bombs too soon and hitting the boats, the pilots dropped the bombs 200 to 300 yards inland, which was of no use.
Bailey has returned to France for the 50th and 60th anniversaries of D-Day, where he stood on the Omaha Beach that years before he was flying above.
“And God willing I will go to the 70th,” said Bailey about the next anniversary in June.
A bomber’s story
First stationed at Andrews Field north of London, Bailey’s squadron would fly combat missions over France to disrupt German transportation routes by bombing bridges and railroad yards.
Later, their mission was expanded to include targeting rocket sites where Germans were launching Buzz Bombs, named for the ticking sound they made as they clicked along to their targets. If the sound stopped, that meant the bomb was about to fall.
One did fall 300 to 400 yards from Bailey’s barracks, blowing off the door. Bailey has kept fragments from that bomb.
Bailey said Andrews Field sounded the air raid alarm about six times, warning the men to take cover in trenches scattered around the area, but most of the time these ditches had 6 to 8 inches of water at the bottom.
“If it was at night, I never got out of bed,” said Bailey, who added he preferred to “die dry.”
In September 1944, Bailey’s unit was moved 40 miles north of Paris, which meant the allied movement had successfully liberated France and the men would now attack German soil.
Those missions included bombing Flak cannons used by the Germans to shoot down aircraft. On one flight, shrapnel came up through Bailey’s plane and landed between his feet.
“Because the weapons could be moved, we never knew if we were effective or not, but we kept them moving anyway,” Bailey said.
An American story
In his 65 missions, Bailey was never seriously wounded, except when his windshield was shot and pieces punctured his face.
“Apparently I was a bloody mess,” Bailey said.
Bailey said he spent time off duty with his fellow soldiers going into Paris to get drinks along the Champs Élysées, and even see a show at the Lido Club.
“Just about all the French entertainment was topless,” Bailey said.
In January 1945, Bailey completed his combat tour and returned stateside to Orlando, Fla., where he was a “taxi service” in the sky for military personnel.
Bailey said when the Japanese surrendered after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki it was a thrill to know the war was over, but it also meant cut backs in the armed forces and the end of his military career.
At 28, Bailey applied for his G.I. bill and received his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York.
While in school Bailey, married his wife, Patricia, and stayed in New England for years while working for IBM. He then moved to northern California where he spent 30 years and he retired in 1996.
In February of 2010, Bailey suffered a heart attack and moved into his son Don’s house in Kennesaw. Bailey has another son, two daughters and eight grandchildren.