Constable: Among first to free Paris, Libertyville veteran gets highest French medal at age 99
After months of close-range firefights against Nazi soldiers that began when his 38th Cavalry platoon landed on Omaha Beach in the days after D-Day, a conquering 22-year-old Leonard J. Brzostowski rolled through the streets of Paris as one of the first Allied soldiers to arrive after the Germans retreated. On his 99th birthday, the Libertyville man and former U.S. Army sergeant received the French Legion of Honor, France's highest distinction, from Consul General Yannick Tagand in a ceremony Thursday at the Consulate General of France in Chicago.
The memories of being the first to arrive at the Notre Dame Cathedral to an adoring throng, driving his six-wheeled armored vehicle down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, and setting up camp near the Arc de Triomphe bring back the emotions of that day.
"People were crying. I actually cried myself," Brzostowski says. "How we got picked for that, I don't know."
Born in Chicago and growing up in the far Northwest Side neighborhood of Norwood Park, Brzostowski dropped out of Carl Schurz High School at age 15 and lived on the streets after the death of his mother, Stella.
"For six months I slept in hallways and open cars," recalls Brzostowski, who eventually lived with his mom's sister in Logan Square. He spent his free time roller skating at the Riverview Roller Rink. He found a good job at the start of World War II, making $350 a week operating a screw machine 12 hours a day, six days a week, in a plant making war supplies, including timing devices for U.S. battleships.
He tried enlisting in the Marines, who rejected him because of a vision problem in his right eye, as did the Navy, Army Air Corps, and Merchant mariners. Then he got drafted by the Army, which wasn't concerned about his vision. After completing his training, which started at Fort Sheridan, Brzostowski boarded the Queen Mary in New York on Nov. 15, 1943, and landed in Scotland. His 38th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron made its home at a base in Exeter, England, and he was assigned to the 102nd Cavalry Regiment.
His fire-engine red hair earned him the nickname "Red" from soldiers and "coppernob" from the women at local bars.
He trained in trenches and hills, similar to hedgerows on the beaches of Normandy, France. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe, visited the 38th Cavalry in Exeter and told the men they would be the first to storm Omaha Beach.
"We were like kids in a candy store. 'Oh, man, we're going to be the first one out there,'" Brzostowski remembers thinking. "We didn't realize what was going to happen."
The platoon actually landed a few days after the first deadly assault. Brzostowski says they still came under fire from the Germans, and it killed three members of the platoon. "The hardest part was when we lost those three boys in Normandy," he says, pausing to regain control of his emotions. "I can close my eyes and see those three kids. That's how well I remember them."
He holds back tears when he talks about meeting the starving occupants liberated from the Buchenwald concentration camp. "We gave them food, cigarettes and candy bars. We gave them everything we could," Brzostowski says. "They were skin and bones."
He does cry when he tells about when he was the leader of a platoon that came into a German village and were met by an old man shooting a gun into the air. Realizing that the man was not a threat, he told his men to hold their fire, but one soldier shot and killed the man. "His wife came out and I held her," Brzostowski remembers.
From June 1944 until Oct. 25, 1945, Brzostowski participated in five military campaigns throughout Europe, seeing the heaviest combat in the Ardennes region, starting in France and advancing into Germany.
"We were in the combat area all the time. We never left," says Brzostowski. Often outmanned and facing Germans with machine guns while he was armed with a rifle, Brzostowski earned a Bronze Star for his "cool courage, leadership and skill." He earned his Purple Heart after German mortars exploded near him, leaving shrapnel in his back and arms. Medics dug out the metal and Brzostowski continued fighting, eventually reaching Germany in December 1944.
When 300 Germans surrendered to his platoon, the German leader gave him a box containing two chrome-plated Luger pistols, which a commanding officer took from Brzostowski with a promise that he'd get them mailed to his home in Chicago. The pistols never arrived, but Brzostowski still has a Nazi flag with a bullet hole that he found in a vehicle left behind by retreating Germans.
After the war, Brzostowski returned to Chicago and the Riverview Roller Rink, where he rekindled a relationship with Hazel Klein. Having learned how to dance in England, Brzostowski skated the waltz and the fox trot with her.
"She was wearing 'Evening in Paris' perfume," says Brzostowski, who has plenty of good memories of Paris. They were married June 7, 1947. The couple bought their first home with a loan from a bank where the loan officer happened to be the brother of one of the three men who died in Normandy. Living in Libertyville since 1969, the couple had children Philip, Laura and Nancy, and five grandchildren.
Hazel Brzostowski died in 2018, and Brzostowski, who retired after a career as a foreman for the company that started as Illinois Bell and now is AT&T, lives by himself with a 17-year-old miniature Dachshund named Snickers. Daughter Nancy Garcia lives around the corner and was instrumental in leading the effort to have the French government honor her father.
"We had real French champagne and French pastries," says Garcia, who attended the ceremony with her daughter, Natalie, 26.
As wonderful as that tasted, it still couldn't measure up to the first taste of France that Brzostowski enjoyed during his initial visit to Paris 77 years ago.
"They were giving us wine and champagne," Brzostowski remembers. "It was awesome."