Although more than 65 years have passed, retired Lt. Col. Ken Guetzke still remembers what it was like to be among the first American troops to break through enemy lines into Paris in 1944, effectively liberating France. "Coming into Paris, the people were just frantic, trying to hug a G.I.," Guetzke said. "They were so happy when the Americans came in."
And the French government hasn't forgotten the contributions of American soldiers like Guetzke. Earlier this month, Guetzke was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French government.
"For France, this is the highest honor we can bestow on a person," said Graham Paul, consul general at France's consulate in Chicago. "It's just a sign of our gratitude. All the young Americans who came to fight at that time are heroes, and we need to recognize them."
Since 2005, Legion of Honor medals have been given to U.S. soldiers who served in World War II, fought on French soil and received any American war medal or honor. About 100 such medals have been presented to Midwestern veterans during the past year. However, identifying who is eligible and completing an application takes time, Paul said.
Guetzke was eligible for the recognition, having received numerous other awards for his two years of service in Europe, including a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, both earned when he served as part of an anti-aircraft battalion in the 459th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division.
But he wasn't expecting to add to his collection of accolades at age 96.
"When I got that notice from Paris and the French government that said I was being considered for this award, I didn't know what was going to occur," Guetzke said. "But I thought it was pretty terrific. I felt grateful."
Guetzke's son, Tom, revealed that when he first discussed the award with his father, Ken Guetzke became emotional. "He was very touched."
A fitting ceremony
Tom Guetzke initially planned to hold an award ceremony at the Capitol in St. Paul. However, because staff and other residents at his father's assisted-living facility in Eden Prairie also wanted to attend, the ceremony was held in-house at The Colony on Jan. 12.
The award was presented by Gov. Mark Dayton, along with state Rep. Jenifer Loon and House Speaker Kurt Zellers, who presented Guetzke with a framed resolution from the Minnesota House of Representatives. An Eden Prairie High School choir sang the Star-Spangled Banner and an honor guard from the Bloomington VFW added a military presence.
Loon said that when she heard Guetzke's story, she was happy to help bring attention to the honor. "He's just one of the people you really want to hold up as a wonderful American, a hero, and someone our children and grandchildren should know about."
Tom Guetzke, who gave a speech summarizing his father's life, said he was thrilled with how the ceremony turned out. "It was the most amazing thing I've ever been involved with, in terms of the emotions, especially when all the soldiers came up and saluted him," Tom Guetzke said.
Ken Guetzke rarely spoke about his time in the war when his children were growing up, Tom Guetzke said, but he would share stories when asked directly about his experiences.
"I wasn't aware of all that he'd done," Tom Guetzke said. "He's become more open about it recently."
Ken Guetzke, who displays an American flag on his walker, said that receiving the award has brought back memories of the war. "This week, more than ever, I've thought about it."
Ken had been married and was enrolled in his second year of dental school when the United States entered the war. He enlisted without thinking twice, Tom Guetzke said.
When he returned home, he finished dental school and opened a dental office in Minneapolis, where he practiced for 40 years. All the while, he remained active in various service organizations, including the American Legion, the VFW and the Lions Club. At the age of 85, he joined the Shriners. He's won numerous awards for his civic and volunteer work.
For Guetzke, the ultimate lesson he learned from his time in the war was the importance of service, both national and individual, he said. But don't call him a hero.
"I don't consider myself a hero," he said, his light-blue eyes shining. "There were a lot more heroes than me in this thing."
Erin Adler is a Minneapolis freelance writer.