More than 68 years after taking part in the Normandy invasion, a World War II veteran from Livingston was finally awarded the combat medals he earned for his part in defeating the Nazis in Europe.
As a chief radio operator with the Fourth Combat Engineers, Seymour “Steve” Atkins and his fellow soldiers served in the “vanguard” that helped Gen. George Patton’s Third Army advance into France and defeat thousands of German troops.
“We would precede the infantry to the beaches, remove the landmines, and open the beaches up for the infantry,” said Atkins.
But because Atkins was not a member of the infantry, the powers-that-be did not believe he was entitled to special commendations.
“We were there ahead of the infantry, and were eligible,” he told NJ Jewish News on Monday, moments before he was finally awarded seven different commendations by Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Dist. 8) in a ceremony at the congressman’s Paterson office.
Although a law passed at the end of World War II called for presenting Bronze Stars to all infantrymen who landed in Normandy within 30 days of D-Day, Atkins’ engineering unit was not included because it was a different division of the army. “We pointed it out, but the government never did anything about it,” he said.
Atkins’s son Richard was determined to reverse the slight. After his first request was denied, he urged Pascrell to join the battle for his father’s recognition.
“I got a charge out of it,” said Pascrell. “I like it when they tell us, ‘You can’t do it.’ So we also got two more medals that were denied to you.”
“I appreciate that,” said Atkins.
The mission was assigned to Nancy Everett, Pascrell’s director of constituent services.
“We made calls and asked the government to revisit this,” she told NJJN. “They said his position didn’t warrant the medals, but he certainly had enough information to substantiate the claim.”
One after another, Pascrell handed Atkins the awards long overdue — his Combat Infantry Medal and his Bronze Star, along with a marksman’s medal, a ribbon commemorating his service in the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign, a World War II Victory Medal, an Honorable Service lapel pin, and an Army Good Conduct Medal.
“They made a mistake with that one,” joked one of his relatives in the crowded conference room. Joining Atkins and his wife, Alice, at the ceremony were their four sons, four daughters-in-law, and five of their nine grandchildren.
The couple met at a welcome home party a week after Atkins returned from World War II. They will celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary on Friday.
“We honor you today, your family honors you today, and the country honors you today because of what you did. We want you to live a long time and keep on telling those stories,” said Pascrell before presenting Atkins with a final recognition, a Congressional Eagle lapel pin.
“This is one of the most outstanding days of my life,” said the joyous war veteran as the ceremony ended. He said he was particularly pleased “that the whole family is here to hear the congressman and learn about the work he did in putting this together.”
Like Pascrell, Atkins is a native of Paterson. He is now retired from a career as a builder specializing first in home construction, then in medical office complexes.
At the urging of his grandchildren, he has spent many hours speaking to students about his service in the war. “I still get weepy when I talk about the war,” he said.
One memory concerns his near-death experience.
“We were getting shelled,” he said, “and luckily, one of my officers came over to the weapons carrier where I was sitting and said to me, ‘Soldier, get your backside out of that truck and on the ground.’
“I did, and moments later a shell hit behind me and the shrapnel went through the weapons carrier. It cut off my headphones, but it did not hit me.”
Through it all, his Jewishness “had an impact on me in those days. Being a Jew in those days and being in the army was important to me.”
That identity became especially poignant when his unit arrived at the Nazi concentration camp in Nordhausen, Germany, a day after its liberation, and the servicemen were greeted warmly by the emaciated men and women who survived among 3,000 unburied corpses.
“We saw the remnants of the bodies,” said Atkins. “It was something embedded in me. You can’t get rid of it.”