As a skinny little kid during the Great Depression, Jim Butz listened to the distant sound of train whistles late at night and wondered if he'd ever see anything beyond the borders of Akron, Ohio.
Many decades later, the now 88-year-old Schaumburg resident will be named a chevalier, or knight, of the French Legion of Honor on March 1 at the French consulate in Chicago for the role he played in liberating France from its German occupiers in 1944 and '45.
The Legion of Honor award is France's highest distinction, established by Napoleon in 1802 and created to honor extraordinary contributions to the country. Only 100 people can receive the award in any given year, and it cannot be given posthumously.
U.S. veterans who fought during World War II in one of the four major campaigns -- Normandy, Provence, Ardennes or Northern France -- that led to the liberation of France may be awarded the distinction.
Butz, whose life has played out all over the country and world, is proudly accepting the honor nine years into a battle with leukemia and a fight with macular degeneration, which is slowly draining his sight.
Though he's been witness to some of the darkest days of the 20th century, Butz is deeply grateful and wouldn't change a single circumstance.
"I have just had a marvelous life," he said in the living room of his Schaumburg home of the past 16 years. "God has been so good to me. When I finish my life, I can't complain."
The story of Butz's service in World War II begins with physical limitations. He initially was rejected by the Army just out of high school in 1942 because he was only 5 feet, 8 inches tall and 120 pounds.
"I was disappointed," he said.
But as casualties mounted, the Army lowered its physical requirements. The following year, Butz enlisted.
"I grew up in a hurry in the Army," he said. "I felt so proud. There was such a patriotic spirit."
After a couple of short-lived assignments not far from his Ohio home, Butz was put in the Army Specialized Training Program and sent to study engineering at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The program ended at a moment's notice in January 1944 as casualties in Europe began to reach critical levels. His bags were packed by the end of the week for the deployment that ultimately found him in D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge.
Though originally scheduled to arrive in France a day or two after D-Day, Butz was reassigned after 1,000 others training for the mission along the English coast were killed by a passing German ship.
Butz and his comrades were told to capture a rocky outcrop between Omaha Beach and Utah Beach where a cave was believed to house weaponry able to fire about 12 miles.
They were given a half-hour to get to it, but it took three to four hours, under gunfire from all directions, before they discovered the expected weaponry wasn't there.
"We didn't know beforehand how strong the opposition would be or what we would face," Butz said.
Soldiers had different ways of adapting to combat. Butz learned to face the cruel conditions by playing a mind game with himself.
"I remembered the life I had in the U.S. as a movie, something unreal, but this was real life," Butz said. "My mind adjusted to the fact that this is how it's always going to be. The war is never going to be over, and I just have to survive each day."
As difficult as D-Day was, its relative brevity made the Battle of the Bulge at the end of the year even harder for him.
The war had been going so well for the Allies that it was expected to be over by Christmas. So none of the soldiers had gotten their winter gear yet when they were suddenly hit with a counteroffensive by Germans using captured American uniforms and tanks to deceive.
Night after night was bone-numbingly cold. Worse, the conditions prevented the Allies' superior air defenses from flying.
"It was the worst battle, the worst time of my life," Butz said.
Each night was so miserable he dreamed of being wounded, or even losing a foot to frostbite as many others were, just to be taken to somewhere warm.
"After about 10 days the sun came out, and oh, boy, it was so good to see the sun!" he said.
It wasn't just the weather that excited him. It was the prospect of soon seeing the skies filled with Allied planes.
On Christmas Day 1944, he earned one of his two Bronze Stars by personally taking out a group of Germans holding a building in a Belgian town. He incapacitated the marksmen with a grenade thrown through the window before going in with his gun.
After crossing the Rhine River into Germany in the spring of 1945, the end of the war began to seem close. He and his fellow soldiers had never thought twice about dangerous missions before, but suddenly they began to.
"Your whole attitude changed now because you knew the war was going to end soon," he said. "None of us wanted to be the last guy killed."
Germany's surrender in May 1945 should have been the end of danger, but the American soldiers remained in Europe for many months afterward.
In one area they were assigned, a former World War I battlefield, a colleague was killed by kicking a decades-old German artillery shell that had been unearthed on their makeshift basketball court.
Upon returning home, Butz got into Notre Dame University on the GI Bill. He married a girl he'd gone to school with in Ohio and then took a job with Wilson Sporting Goods in Chicago.
They lived in Mount Prospect from 1956 to 1979, raising five children.
Butz thought he'd left cold Midwestern winters behind when he got a job with the PGA in Palm Beach, Fla. Four years later, he and his wife, Helen, moved to the Los Angeles area for another job in the golf industry and stayed for 18 years.
Business trips have taken him all around the world, not only back to the countries of his life-changing experiences in Europe but to Asian nations like Vietnam as well.
Helen's death in November 1996 prompted his return to the Chicago area, where three of his children live.
Butz said he's looking forward to his children and several friends joining him for the official presentation of the Legion of Honor on March 1.
Butz's son, Terry, said that because of his father's health, the family was able to get the medal in advance with which to surprise him on Christmas.
Jim Butz said he's been looking forward to this special day for nearly two months already.
"It's a very great honor to have a foreign country do this," he said.