U.S. Army veteran Broughton “Brodie” Hand, 92, of Anahuac received France’s highest award — the Legion of Honor medal — last month for his efforts to liberate France from Nazi occupation during World War II. Frédéric Bontems, the consul general of France, presented the award to Hand and 14 other World War II veterans from Texas. The ceremony, which is usually held in Washington, D.C., was held in Texas for the first time at Ellington Field in Houston.
“Usually the award is for French people, but we do give it to some foreigners who we feel deserve it specifically,” said Marie-Laure Reed, assistant to the head of post at the Office of the Consul General of France in Houston. “It is a very prestigious award created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.”
U.S. veterans who risked their lives during World War II to fight on French territory may be awarded this distinction, Reed said. Those selected are appointed to the rank of Knight of the Legion of Honor.
Hand volunteered for service in the midst of the war in 1942. He worked his way up to demolition sergeant and was assigned to the 508th regiment of the 82nd Airborne. Hand parachuted into Nazi-occupied Normandy, France, during the June 6, 1944, D-Day mission Operation Overlord. His mission was to blow up a bridge between Pont I’Abbe and Beuzeville-la-bastille that was vital to the German supply line over the Douve River. Hand said that the Germans needed the bridge to get to Cherbourg, an important deep-water port. Hand’s landing did not go as planned. Due to flak and fog, Hand said he landed in a tree 14 miles from his drop zone destination.
“I didn’t get to (complete my mission),” he said. “No one else did either.”
Hand had to cut his parachute harness to free himself.
“I knew which way the planes were flying — back to England — so I knew which way to go,” he said.
He and several other men trekked back toward the Douve River, where they met up with a lieutenant from another Army unit but couldn’t find a way to cross the water. Hand experienced another setback as well.
“One of the Nazi guards spotted us and shot me. But it didn’t wound me enough to bother me a great deal,” he said. “I had a Thompson sub-gun, and I blew him out, so he didn’t give us any more problems. One of the boys gave me his medicine and put it on my hip where I was hit. I kept going.”
Hand said food was hard to come by.
“We stopped in a French home,” he said. “They were giving us food, milk and butter. We stayed down on the river in an old shack.”
The American soldiers weren’t the only troops who were looking for something to eat, according to Hand.
“I had captured two German troops who were coming down to get food from the Frenchmen too,” he said. “I just stepped out and put my gun on them, and they threw their hands up. They weren’t looking for trouble; they didn’t even have their rifles with them.”
The soldiers continued to try to find a way across the Douve and stopped at another French home farther up the river, where the residents promised to find them a boat to get them to the other side. However, while they were waiting, one of the men made a costly mistake.
“One of the troopers went to sleep,” Hand said. “The Germans came down the road and saw him. He woke up in time to shoot at (them) but missed.”
The gunshot gave away Hand’s position.
“The Germans came down with a tank destroyer and blew us out of that French home,” Hand said. “We had nothing but hand grenades and rifles.”
Hand said the two guards that he had captured helped him and around 13 other soldiers through the lines so that they could surrender peacefully to the Germans.
“The Germans shook us down to where we had nothing. I lost everything I had except for one or two items like my watch that they let me keep,” Hand said. “The Germans took into consideration that we did have two prisoners, and we hadn’t killed them. They had been instructed that (U.S.) paratroopers usually don’t take POWs.”
After their surrender, Hand and the other men worked in five or six Nazi POW camps and repaired railroad stations and airfields that were bombed by U.S. planes.
“If there was a dud that the bombers dropped that didn’t explode, we’d dig down to the dud, and the German sappers would come in and explode it,” Hand recounted.
While Hand said that the Nazis treated the American POWs fairly for the most part, the soldiers were malnourished.
“Red Cross parcels did not get around as they should have,” he said. “There were very few that made it to the camps. We never got enough to eat. I weighed around 190 pounds when I was in England, and when I got out I was down to 110.”
It was even worse, however, for the Russian captives at the neighboring prison camp. They had no food and no place to sleep, Hand said.
“They were treated like animals,” he said. “They got together at night and slept (huddled) together.”
Eventually, Hand ended up in a slave labor coal mine in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.
“It was the first time I had been underground. That was a scary experience for me,” he explained.
Hand befriended a Czechoslovakian man who was also being forced to work in the mine.
“The Czech was a prisoner no different than us,” Hand said. “He knew a little German just like I did. We both were kind of guessing, but it was enough to communicate. We would write names in the coal dust where we sat at night. We would write ‘Mother’ or our wife’s name if we were married.”
While the relationships formed kept the men going, some didn’t make it out of the mine alive.
“One of the men got sick and died,” he said.
A group of the prisoners got together and decided they were going to skip work so that they could attend the funeral of their fellow soldier, which Hand said didn’t go over so well with their Nazi captors.
“The guard came in to get the boys to do their daily work in the mine, and he hollered at them to get ready. They told him they were going to take the day off,” Hand said. “So he picked his rifle up and shot an old boy out of bed and said, ‘You are going to go to work!’”
“I was on the night shift, so I got to bury (the soldier that died of sickness) and the next day we buried the boy that got shot,” he said.
The strange thing, according to Hand, was that the Germans prepared two different coffins for each of the dead American soldiers.
“The Germans are known to be real precise about everything,” Hand said. “They gave a (nicer) casket to the boy that died than to the one they shot.”
After a few months working in the mine, Hand said he was injured in a small cave-in.
“You had small rooms that would shoot the coal down in the box cars that would probably hold a ton or a ton and a half,” he said. “When the ceiling fell in, I was standing near the box car so it really saved my life, but I couldn’t work any longer.”
Hand said a German doctor treated him and saved his leg. The Germans moved him out of the mine, and he traveled a little by train, but mostly had to walk for days on end with a bad leg.
“I walked my jump boots out and (had to wear) wooden clogs,” he said. “They weren’t too bad though because it was winter time — everything was frozen — and I could just slide along.”
Hand said they finally reached a hospital in Neuenbürg, Germany.
“It was freezing weather. We were wrapped up with what blankets we had,” he said. “I looked up on the porch of the hospital, and there were three or four men rolled up in their blankets dead. They had frozen to death waiting to be picked up the next morning.”
Hand told a fellow soldier that he was going to get one of the blankets off of one of the American soldiers’ corpses to try and get warm, but the man advised against it because of the risk of disease.
“It was either that or freeze to death,” Hand said. “One of them had been out there so long that the blanket was frozen on him. I tried another one, and it was loose because he hadn’t been dead too long. I unrolled him and took his blanket.”
Hand returned to the man that warned him not to take the blanket.
“I told that old boy, ‘This man not only gave his life for his country; he saved my life too because he gave me his blanket.’”
Hand said he knew the war was coming to an end because the German guards vacated the hospital. He also learned of George S. Patton’s arrival from a lieutenant who served in Patton’s 3rd Army, which made its push through Europe liberating and capturing 81,522 square miles of territory, an estimated 12,000 cities, towns and communities.
“He told us that (the Germans) just dumped him where they could and that the war was getting close to being over,” Hand said.
The men were starving and had been for a long time, Hand said. He recounted one fond memory that stuck out in his mind shortly before his liberation.
“There was a little French priest that came by with leavened bread and wine,” he said. “We got a couple of bottles of wine from him, and we all got drunk.”
Hand said that a few days later, U.S. forces arrived at the hospital with trucks to pick up him and the other POWs. “They took us to an airfield and we went to the camp where they were cooking,” Hand said. “We asked the cook if he had any food because we were hungry. He said, ‘No, all I have is a can of peaches, but I’ll fry you some donuts.’ We were sitting there (eating) and the Air Corps came by and asked us if we were ready to go. I looked at the lieutenant, and he looked at me. I told them, ‘Go ahead. We’ll catch the next flight.’”
Hand said that he and the lieutenant ended up in a Paris hospital, where Hand recovered from his injuries before returning to Fort Sam Houston Hospital in San Antonio, where he got out of the Army shortly after the war in Europe had ended.
Hand returned to Sainte-Mère-Église several times for veteran reunions and even had lunch with the mayor of the city. He went on to marry Lillian Syer in 1948 and together they raised two daughters and one son. Besides the Legion of Honor medal, he has received many medals including a Purple Heart. He has been the past commander of the Freeman Spath Post 104 of the American Legion, past commander of the Disabled American Veterans, a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a member of the Order of Purple Heart, and is presently Commander of the Texas Golden Triangle Chapter of Ex-POWs.
“It’s wonderful to speak with veterans and listen to their stories,” said Marie-Laure Reed, assistant to the head of post at the Office of the Consul General of France in Houston. “A lot of them are very modest, which is amazing because a lot of them are real heroes. You don’t know it until you read their stories.”