Hampton man honored by French government for efforts in World War II
France wanted to thank Albert J. Zimmerman, 90, of Hampton.
Nearly 70 years ago, the former newspaperman led a machine gun squad that helped repel an armored German unit near the French border in World War II.
“I came through the war unscathed,” said Zimmerman, a new “chevalier” — knight — in the French Order of the Legion of Honor.
“I took four boys into combat for four months, and sent home four men to their mamas,” said Zimmerman, who grew up in Etna.
“I never face-to-face had to kill anyone,” he said.
In March, Zimmerman and his wife of 66 years — the former Edith Bauer, 87, of Millvale — visited the French embassy in Washington, D.C. to pick up his new green and white Legion of Honor medal.
Olivier Serot-Almerus, French consul general in Washington, D.C., pinned the medal — with praise — on Zimmerman, and 13 other World War II veterans during a 3 p.m. March 26 ceremony at the embassy.
Servings of champagne and French pastries followed the formalities.
“These very brave men have been awarded in recognition of their support to the liberation of France, and to their participation in return of peace to Europe,” said Arnaud Guillois, spokesman for the Embassy of France in the United States.
After the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte established the French Legion of Honor award — the highest national decoration in France — in 1802.
“It rewards the outstanding merits of citizens in all walks of life, regardless of social, economic or hereditary backgrounds,” Guillois said. “Here, the French government decided to pay tribute to American veterans who fought in France during World War II.”
“All over the world, and for more than two centuries, several thousand non-French citizens have received the Legion of Honor,” Guillois said.
More than three years ago, Zimmerman attended a Duquesne University gathering of U.S. military veterans where Zimmerman met a man eager to meet people who had served in France during World War II.
Zimmerman then filled out papers detailing his foreign service, which led to a recent phone call from the French embassy in Washington, D.C., to inform him about his Legion of Honor award.
During World War II, Zimmerman served with the Army's 42nd Rainbow Infantry Division and received the Bronze Star, Combat Infantry Badge and three Battle Stars.
Snow covered the ground in late December 1944 and early January 1945 when Zimmerman's regiment faced off with a German tank unit in the Battle of Hatten-Rittershofen — on the northeast border of France and Germany — as the Battle of the Bulge raged in Belgium.
In late April 1945, Zimmerman's unit then arrived at Dachau, site of the former Nazi concentration camp and extermination center.
“Our unit is credited with liberating that camp,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman remembers seeing the camp's railroad sidings, with “car after car of dead bodies,” he said. “I was told Buchenwald — site of another Nazi concentration camp — had run out of fuel to fire their furnaces.”
After World War II, Zimmerman received a bachelor degree in English at the University of Pittsburgh, and worked for newspapers in Fairmont, W. Va., and Richmond, Va., before he joined Ketchum Inc. and helped more than 125 clients raise “hundreds of millions of dollars for nonprofit service organizations,” he said.
Zimmerman, a fan of jazz and model railroading, also met his wife after the war at a dance in the former St. Anthony Lyceum in Millvale.
Edith Zimmerman, a former secretary in the athletic department at the University of Pittsburgh, is past president of Christ Lutheran Church Council in Millvale.
Albert Zimmerman also is a past president of the church council.
He served three terms on the Southwest Pennsylvania Synod Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The Zimmermans have three children: Craig J. of Attleboro, Mass.; Marsha Kruze of Loveland, Ohio; and Terry Shand of Franktown, Colo.
They also have six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Deborah Deasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6369 or email@example.com.