Two World War II veterans received France’s highest distinction at a ceremony held at the French Consulate in Beverly Hills on May 20. First Lieutenant Fernando Torres, 98, served under the U.S. Army Reserves when he landed on Omaha Beach on June 7, 1945, as a part of Operation Overlord, or D-Day. A few days later, Private First Class Oscar Stein, now 97, landed on the same beach under the auspices of the U.S. Army.
“To confer such a medal to an individual is thus a most solemn occasion and is a way in which France pays tribute to remarkable men and women,” said French Consul General Julie Duhaut-Bedos before bestowing France’s highest honor on the two men. “Today, in the name of the French republic, and in front of your families and friends, I want to assure you that we have not forgotten your personal commitment 77 years ago and we have remained grateful. We owe you our freedom.”
Both Torres and Stein came to the United States as immigrants before serving in the theater of combat. Torres was born just south of the border in Monterrey, Mexico, in May 1922, before moving to Laredo, Texas, at 14-months-old. But economic conditions by the 1930s had reached a nadir and Torres dropped out of high school to support his family during the Great Depression. As the war effort ramped up, Torres committed to joining the fight. After scarfing down bananas to meet weight requirements, he enlisted in November 1942.
Stein came to America much later. He was born in Dynow, Poland, in July 1923, but moved just a week later to Vienna. He spent the first 15 years of his life in the Austrian capital until his family fled Nazi occupation in 1938. After they made their way through Hungary and Italy, his family escaped to the United States on a boat and arrived in May 1940. Stein worked in various jobs to help his family until April 1943, when he was drafted into the Army.
After completing basic training at Fort Bragg and advanced training in field artillery at Fort Jackson, Stein trekked his way back across the ocean that had carried him to safety only five years earlier. Only, this time, he came with reinforcements.
Stein arrived in England in late 1943. Elsewhere in the United Kingdom, Torres had been stationed in Scotland around the same time. Both would be a part of the historic opening of a second front in the battle against Nazi Germany, a tide-turning moment that came on June 6, 1944, when Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy.
“These young men were remarkably brave as the rough waves of the sea hit, and so did the waves of anxiety and uncertainty as to what awaited them on the shore,” said Duhaut-Bedos.
Torres made landfall first on June 7 with Company A of the 17th Signal Operations Battalion, “providing indispensable communications support not only to the Army units in Normandy, but all the other units based in Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace and Central Europe,” Duhaut-Bedos said. Stein debarked with the 3rd Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division on June 10 after the fighting had subsided. He pressed forward with his battalion as German forces retreated, fighting in the Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace and Central Europe campaigns.
Stein spoke about that time and what it meant to be called a hero. “When, after the Normandy breakthrough, we set out racing after Germans for those many weeks until we reached Germany and on from there until the total defeat of and surrender by Germany, I had never looked on my buddies and myself as heroes or even heroic,” Stein said. “With more than a half century and two decades of added wisdom, I have now learned what only advanced age can teach. All of my buddies during those fighting years, who have laid their lives on the line, are exceptional and noble heroes and should be held in awe by a grateful world.”
For their services, both Torres and Stein have been awarded numerous commendations. Torres is decorated with the European-African-Middle Eastern (EAME) Campaign Medal with 5 battle stars, the World War II Victory Medal and the Good Conduct Medal. Stein earned the EAME Campaign Medal with 5 battle stars, the Combat Infantryman Badge, the French Fourragere, and Bronze Star Medal for heroism or achievement.
“France has not forgotten and will forever remember the soldiers who lost their lives during those terrible battles. Honorable veterans, you were not only fighters. You had become our liberators. No longer merely living men, but heroes and a symbol of our common values: the spirit of resistance, the spirit of liberty, and the spirit of friendship,” said Duhaut-Bedos.
Duhaut-Bedos assumed the role of Consul General in Los Angeles in September 2020. She came to Los Angeles by way of her previous posting as the Deputy Head of Mission at the French Embassy in Australia. The ceremony marked the first time she conferred the Legion of Honor medal in her capacity as Consul General in Los Angeles.
Beverly Hills Mayor Robert Wunderlich offered reflections in honor of the veterans, speaking to his own connections to the Second World War. His father, he said, served in the Pacific theater and his wife’s father landed in Normandy on June 9. “I’ve been to Normandy and it is awe inspiring to stand there on the cliffs with row after row of the graves in the cemetery,” he said. “It evokes that feeling of self-sacrifice and cooperation that was present then and that we could aspire to today.”
In addition to the Legion of Honor Medals, Torres and Stein received challenge coins from Stephanie Stone, Chief Deputy Director, Los Angeles County Department of Military & Veterans Affairs. “A challenge coin is given to an honored member of the community or shipmate to welcome them back into our community,” said Stone, herself a retired Naval officer.
“France has not forgotten these American young men like you who demonstrated their selflessness, generosity, and unwavering bravery and courage whilst under fire of the enemy,” said Duhaut-Bedos. “France has not forgotten and will forever remember the soldiers who lost their lives during those terrible battles.”