NORMAN — It was almost 70 years in the making but Col. (Ret) Woodrow Wiltse got a thank-you present Thursday afternoon.
The Republic of France bestowed its Legion of Honor award to the 95-year-old Norman resident who, as a young artillery officer, participated in some of Europe’s most fierce fighting during World War II.
The award was presented Thursday inside a packed dining room at Legend’s Restaurant by Grant Moak, honorary consul of the Republic of France. Wiltse’s family and friends gave him a standing ovation.
“When I was a young lieutenant I sure didn’t think all of this was going to come to pass,” Wiltse joked after Moak pinned the medal to the colonel’s lapel.
Moak, who will present three of the awards this year, said the Legion of Honor is the highest commendation presented by the French government.
The award was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.
Moak said Wiltse fought a war, not of conquest, but of liberation.
“I’m very pleased to say France is making an effort to honor those brave Americans that put their lives on the line in World War II,” Moak said. “All of us in my generation owe you a debt of gratitude that we can never repay. You truly changed the world.”
Wiltse also received commendations from state Sen. John Sparks, D-Norman, and Rep. Scott Martin, R-Norman. Wiltse also will be honored by legislators next week. A commendation from Gov. Mary Fallin was presented by Barbara Thompson, Doak’s predecessor in the consul post.
Wiltse, a Michigan native, graduated from Michigan State University in 1942 and completed Officer Candidate School in 1943. He was commissioned in the Field Artillery and deployed to England. He served in the 310th Artillery Battalion which was a Direct Support Battalion of the 313th Infantry Regiment. He participated in the largest invasion in modern history, Operation Overlord, entering on Utah Beach in June of 1944, climbing the Cotentin peninsula and capturing Cherbourg.
His battalion fought along side the Second Armored French Division across the Vosges mountains and ultimately liberated Strasbourg. The provisional government of the French Republic awarded the 310th the Croix de Guerre avec Palme, for “magnificent endurance and exceptional courage.” Wiltse was wounded in France and received the Purple Heart.
While in France and Germany, Wiltse participated in all five major campaigns: Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Central Europe, and Ardennes-Alsace. After the war he remained in Europe supervising the administration of various prisoner of war facilities.
He returned to the United States, served in the Michigan National Guard, was deployed to Germany in 1952. He accepted a Regular Army commission in 1953 and remained on active duty with various assignments in the U.S. and overseas until retirement in 1973.
Wiltse came to OU as a professor of military science in 1965 and retired in 1973. Later, he served as the university’s parking director.
He is a member of the Field Artillery Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame, and the Oklahoma Army ROTC Wall of Fame.