For 37 days, 19-year-old Cpl. William “Bud” Schwartz was wedged in a snow-covered 3-foot-deep trench in eastern France, surrounded by German soldiers. Melting snow for water and waiting, there were moments he doubted he’d make it home alive.

“You don’t know when it’s going to happen,” he said. “To tell you the truth, I was scared. … It’s a different world.”

Now, 71 years later and about one month after the Eden Prairie man celebrated his 90th birthday, France is finally giving thanks to Schwartz for his bravery and work to free the country during World War II.

On Tuesday, he will be appointed a knight of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest distinction. It’s an honor he’s accepting not just for himself but for his fellow soldiers who have since died or never even made it home.

“There’s so many that didn’t get a chance to get it,” he said from the Eden Prairie home he and his wife, Dorothy, have lived in since 1953. “I’ve been lucky.”

It’s a rare honor for a non-French citizen. Established in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, the Legion of Honor wasn’t open to U.S. veterans until 2004 — the 60th anniversary of D-Day. It’s limited to living veterans — a dwindling number in the country each day. In the Midwest, about 230 veterans have received the French Legion of Honor.

“We want to celebrate their heroism,” said French Honorary Consul Christina Selander Bouzouina. “They’re just amazing stories, and often families don’t know the extent their father or grandfather served.”

At 9 a.m. Tuesday, Selander Bouzouina, U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen and American Legion Minnesota Cmdr. Peggy Moon will present the award to Schwartz at Eden Prairie City Hall. It can take up to two years to go through the process, but Schwartz said his was expedited after he got a cancer diagnosis last year. (He’s now in remission.)

Overseas for 31 months

Born in 1924 in a Detroit suburb, Schwartz was 18 when he was drafted into the Army, just three days after graduating from high school. He was trained as a cavalryman and in reconnaissance, but assigned to the 36th Combat Engineers, which had already participated in four major invasions and been replenished with soldiers three times.

It was early 1944 when they landed in Anzio, Italy.

“That was hell. Anzio was the worst battle I’ve ever seen,” he said. “You’d see men laying on the road — half a body gone. Or just a boot laying on water. … You never found the rest of the body.”

The unit was also part of Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of southern France in August 1944, known as “The Other D-Day” because it took place after Normandy. Throughout the next few months, Schwartz and his unit trekked across France, rebuilding roads and seven bridges that had been blown up. They also deactivated bombs, finding trip wires hidden in rural vineyards.

“If we had found one that hadn’t been deactivated, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “We’d pray we’d get wounded. They’d put you on a ship on the bay and when they got enough people, they’d go home.”

Sharing his story

But he never got seriously injured. By winter, the unit was trapped by Germans in what became known as the Colmar Pocket. For more than a month, they slept in ditches in subzero temperatures, causing frostbite on his feet three times.

“The living conditions were terrible,” he said. “I don’t think we had three changes of underwear.”

By mid-1945, they reached Germany and were about 4 miles from Austria when he said he watched 500 German soldiers march toward him one day, waving a white flag. The war was over. He had been overseas for 31 months, 19 of them in combat, earning him four Bronze Stars.

“When I was over there, someone was looking over me,” he said of many close calls. “We were lucky.”

When he returned to the U.S., he didn’t say much about the war. He and Dorothy married in 1948 and moved to Minnesota, raising three children while Schwartz worked as a traffic signal electrician for Hennepin County.

Even at the WWII memorial in Washington, D.C., a few years ago, Schwartz declined to share his story, choking up after sitting on a bench inscribed with “Anzio.” “What a coincidence,” he said tearfully.

It wasn’t until about three years ago that he started to share his story after being honored at Eden Prairie’s veterans memorial. Now, after seven decades, a belated thank you from a foreign country has prompted him to finally tell his full story.

“It’s a nice thing. … No one ever said, ‘Thanks for serving,’ ” he said. “This medal is going to mean a lot to me. I really feel honored.”