James Anthony Reiss, 88, of San Clemente, California, will receive the Chevalier dans l’ordre National de la Legion of d’Honneur (National Legion of Honor) for his distinguished service in France during World War II.
A San Clemente resident since 1988, Reiss is one of five veterans to be presented the Legion of Honor Award by French Deputy Consul General Fabrice Maiofino at a private ceremony Thursday, February 27, 2014, 11 a.m. at the California State Veterans Home in Chula Vista. Family and friends will also honor him at a private reception at Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens in San Clemente on Sunday, March 2, 2014.
Created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 to honor extraordinary contributions to the country, the Legion of Honor is France’s highest distinction. U.S. veterans, who risked their life during World War II to fight on French territory, can be appointed to the rank of Knight. American recipients include Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur, Admiral Michael Mullen, and even, as an institution, the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Reiss served in the 106th U.S. Army Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium where he was wounded and taken prisoner on December 15, 1944 by the German army. He was 19 years-old at the time.
Reiss and his division from Camp Atterbury, Indiana, replaced the 2nd Infantry Division in the Ardennes Forest in December of 1944. His division held for two days before being encircled and captured.
Suffering from shrapnel wounds to his leg, left foot, and back, and frost bite to his feet, Reiss spent four months in Nazi prisoner of war hospitals and POW camps north of Koln, Germany, before being liberated by Allied Forces near the end of the war. He underwent many surgeries and lost 70 pounds while a POW because of lack of food for prisoners and rampant illness in the camp.
At one point Reiss and other inmates thought of escaping. “We were being guarded by old men. Getting away wouldn’t have been a problem,” Reiss recounted. “But, our officers pointed out that General Patton’s 32nd Division was advancing toward the area and without knowing their secret password, we could have been shot by our own troops. So we stayed put and watched as the Allies broke through and liberated the camp on Easter Sunday, 1945.”
Until three years ago the Legion d’Honneur was only awarded to French citizens, but other Allied troops may now receive the honor for distinguished service to France. Reiss is delighted and humbled by the honor.
“I have the highest regard for the French people. I owe them a lot. When I was hospitalized, a French medic (also a POW) refused to amputate my foot as recommended by the POW hospital doctors. The only reason I still have that foot today is because of the care he gave me day after day,” said Reiss.
Among other U.S. military honors, Reiss was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He still has a piece of the shrapnel in his leg.
After the war Reiss returned to his home state of Michigan, graduated from the University of Michigan, and began his career in sales for General Motors. He eventually transferred from Detroit to Southern California where he met and married his wife of 60 years, Jeanne. They have four children and nine grandchildren.
Reiss is a twenty-year active member of the San Clemente Kiwanis Club where he has served twice as its President. He is one of the founders of the Club’s Foundation, which was set up to fund worthwhile educational and civic projects benefiting children and families.