Veteran receives Legion of Honor medal from France for WWII service

Kosky’s Legion of Honor medal — France’s highest honor. Photo: Kristi Foster

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Marvin Kosky knew he was owed recognition for his service in France. What he didn’t know was how to show it. 

A 1948 flood had destroyed most of his personal military records and the government’s official copies were lost in the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center. The solution would require two years of wrangling with the French government, giving Kosky the odd distinction of having consumed more time proving he’d served in the European Theater than he’d actually spent fighting there.

The result, however, was well worth the wait. The Clayton resident, who will celebrate his 90th birthday this month, marked his first Memorial Day as a Legion of Honor winner for his heroism in helping to liberate France from the Nazis. Official word came through in January.

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“It’s the most prestigious medal the French give,” said Joyce Miller Kosky, Marvin’s wife of 68 years. “They had a list of recipients and it started with Napoleon.”

Marvin is no Napoleon. The friendly, soft-spoken Bronze Star winner is unassuming even when detailing his exploits. And there are plenty of stories to tell. He participated in a number of famous conflicts including the Battle of the Bulge, the Battle of Germany and the Battle of Metz.

Moreover, Kosky is under no illusions as to just how fortunate he is.

“I can think of maybe 10 names who were killed during the war just in my neighborhood,” he said. “I never got a scratch. I’m lucky to be sitting here.”

Army life

The Koskys’ story began in 1941 when the couple, both native St. Louisans, married while Marvin was on a three-day pass. Ironically, the ceremony, which took place just weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, involved bending the rules for both participants. The nuptials meant Marvin could have been expelled from officer training school while Joyce, who was still finishing her last year of high school, wasn’t yet allowed to wed.

But love conquered all. Before he was deployed overseas, the pair found themselves enduring the peculiarities of military life stateside. Relocations were common and living arrangements could be both cramped and uncertain.

“One time he put me in a garage apartment,” Joyce, 86, recalled with a chuckle. “Another time I stayed with a woman who had a room but wouldn’t let me use the kitchen.”

In a third instance, the couple was subletting space from a lieutenant who was in turn subletting from a captain. When the latter arrived home unexpectedly one early morning with an armful of luggage, Marvin, still in pajamas, was forced to negotiate a new living arrangement with a civilian elsewhere in the building.

But by 1944, the more serious aspects of Army life took over. Two weeks after D-Day, Marvin was deployed to Britain and by the fall he was crossing the English Channel headed toward his first experience in combat.

Kosky vividly remembers trudging single file across tripwire-riddled French minefields with a man posted 15 to 20 feet ahead of the unit holding a stick at arm’s length to probe for booby traps. Sometimes he found them the wrong way. In one instance, the leader set off a trigger and shrapnel wounded the men just ahead of, and behind, Kosky.

The stress, the worry and the danger were constant.

“I just turned it off,” he said. “I was lucky enough to be able to do that. A lot of fellows couldn’t. They carried it all the way through.”

Mainly it was just about keeping the flow moving as the Allies ever-eastward advance swept across the continent toward Berlin.

“Movies like ‘(Saving) Private Ryan’ were pretty close to what it was,” he said. “You weren’t in combat constantly. You’d take a place. You’d move on a few miles and then there’d be another firefight.”

The Battle of Metz

The highlight of Kosky’s tour was Metz, an ancient and heavily fortified border town that the Nazis had won in the Battle of France. Kosky said the spot, a human settlement since Roman times, was highly prized by the Germans and had symbolic meaning for them.

Serving as a combat liaison officer, Kosky’s job was to coordinate the forward observers who directed fire at the enemy. He is still awed by the bravery he witnessed. One forward observer was decorated for calling in an artillery strike on his own location. Another received a medal for taking a German position and using his artillery expertise to turn the guns back on the enemy.

But the valor came with heavy losses.

“We had 50 percent casualties the first day,” Kosky said. “It was unbelievable.”

The town awarded Kosky a medal for his role in its liberation and he said Metz still holds an annual dinner to honor the sacrifice of the American soldiers who fought there.

Before the battle, Kosky had the chance to see one of military history’s most brilliant and controversial figures.

“I remember distinctly when General Patton said, ‘Oh, I can move two divisions in 48 hours,'” said Kosky with a rueful smile. “I was one of those divisions.”

Patton’s profanity-laced pep talk before the battle of Metz was one of two times the captain personally got a taste of the famously hard-bitten general during the Americans’ march across Europe in 1944 and 1945. His impression of the speech wasn’t positive. In fact, he called it “repellant.”

“He used a lot of words I don’t use anymore,” he said.

After Metz, the advance pushed into Germany itself, eventually reaching the Rhine River.

“It was just like a regular beach landing,” he said. “We brought the barges from Normandy through all the cities. We had to blow buildings down to move the barges through. They couldn’t make the turns.”

Back home, the fighting – and the waiting – took a toll on Joyce. While Marvin wrote regularly, his wife remembers most vividly the times she stopped receiving letters. During the Ardennes campaign, Marvin’s unit was in the Battle of the Bulge and correspondence broke off for a terrifying three weeks.

“It was nerve-wracking,” she recalled, “but our postman would ring our bell and say nobody else is getting any mail either. It was so nice of him.”

Though Marvin retired from the military in 1946 before pursuing a career in the construction industry, he rarely spoke of his WWII experiences. It wasn’t until newscaster Tom Brokaw, author of the book “The Greatest Generation” began encouraging descendants of those who had served to investigate their family’s ties to the conflict that attitudes began to change across the country.

“[Brokaw] went around saying ‘Talk to your grandfather,'” Joyce said. “We had three grandsons and the oldest one was the first to start talking to Marvin.”

He did more than talk, eventually filming his grandfather’s recollections over the course of three Sundays. It’s a way of further documenting the experiences of the generation that defeated tyranny. It’s also something that Marvin Kosky, a father of two, grandfather of five and great-grandfather of seven, thinks about when he reads the newspaper. These days, he finds himself counting the flags next to the obituaries, an odd ritual that he engages in every day, not just around Memorial Day.

“Every day there’s 1,200 to 1,300 men dying who were WWII veterans and it’s not going to be long before it’s all of them,” he said.