France on Saturday bestowed its highest honor on a Salt Lake City man who, at age 22, drove a truck into the surf at Omaha Beach on D-Day and was later in the Battle of the Bulge.
Emanuel Mike Kladis, 91, is troubled by a bad back and legs, but had no trouble standing as Marie-Helene Glon, France's honorary consul in Salt Lake City, pinned the Legion of Honor medal on his lapel and kissed the air on both sides of his head.
She thanked him for helping save France from "sheer hell."
"You have rescued people who you didn't even know, but you can be sure those people have not forgotten you," Glon told Kladis.
"Their children and grandchildren have not forgotten you. We will never forget."
Some 75 friends and family members gave Kladis a standing ovation at the culmination of the ceremony at the Salt Lake Masonic Temple, where Kladis has been part of the Masonic community for decades.
Kladis' friend, Jimmie Miller, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve, said Kladis was reticent about applying for the honor. The French government has been offering it since 2004 to American servicemen and women who helped liberate France from the Nazis.
Glon said that in her six years in the post, only one other Utahn has been honored with the medal.
"I finally convinced Mike to do this by telling him the next big event in his life, he's not going to enjoy as much," Miller joked as he read a short biography.
Kladis was born in Granger, and was drafted into the Army in October 1942.
On June 6, 1944, he drove his truck which he had waterproofed with wax on its spark plugs and distributor wires and a pipe for air sticking out of the hood off the ship. Luckily, the water came only halfway up the truck, and Kladis carried ammo and food onto Omaha Beach and to the troops on the front lines there and throughout France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
In late 1944, he was in the Ardennes Forest and was in the Battle of the Bulge.
When the war in Europe ended, he was put on a ship bound for the Pacific theater. War ended there, too, so the ship instead took him to New York.
After he returned to Utah, Kladis married Ruby Shuput and had a career as a truck driver and a diesel mechanic for Salt Lake County government, retiring in 1987. The couple have one son, Mike Kladis.
Kladis had little to say for himself at the ceremony.
"I enjoyed doing it, but I don't want to do it again," said Kladis. "That's about all I can say."
A friend, Robert Shupe, said he has known Kladis for years, but never knew he was in pivotal battles.
"There aren't very many graduates of World War II who talk about it and Mike was one of those," said Shupe, a Navy veteran of the Korean War.
Kladis said it never occurred to him to tell all. "I didn't like to brag about it, I guess."
Know a vet who qualifies?
Utah veterans can apply for France's Legion of Honor through the French consulate in San Francisco, 415-397-4330.
To qualify, one must have fought in at least one of the four main campaigns of the liberation of France: Normandy, Provence, Ardennes or northern France.
Those selected are appointed to the rank of Knight of the Legion of Honor. France's highest distinction, the honor was begun in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte.