Veterans of WWII's Operation Dragoon Honored at Arlington Cemetery Ceremony

By Katie Balestra
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 6, 2009

Thumbing through a scrapbook his children made for him, "Father's Army Life," Sherman Pratt recalled how he peered nervously toward the shore of the French Riviera from his landing ship during World War II, wondering whether German enemy soldiers had spotted him.

Pratt, then a 22-year-old Army first sergeant, was sweating through his wool uniform when a loud bang ripped through the silence. He had his answer. His boat was hit by enemy fire, but he made it to shore uninjured.

On Wednesday, Pratt and 30 other World War II veterans from across the country were honored at Arlington National Cemetery in one of the first formal U.S. ceremonies recognizing Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France on Aug. 15, 1944.

For 30 days, Allied troops fought their way almost 500 miles north to the foothills of the Vosges Mountains, linking up with forces fighting eastward from Normandy, where troops had landed June 6.

Some historians say the August invasion marked the beginning of one of the most successful campaigns of World War II, resulting in the capture of Marseille, France's largest port. But it has largely been overlooked. Some historians have called it the "other" or "forgotten" D-Day.

"This has always been a burr under the saddle for those of us who took part in that operation," said Pratt, 87, who lives in Arlington County. "But we sort of became accustomed to this."

Retired U.S. Army Capt. Monika Stoy, 52, a military sociologist, and her husband decided to do something about that. The couple had traveled to France for several years to commemorate the airborne landings in Normandy and the 3rd Infantry Division's battles in Alsace. In June, after returning from France, Stoy and her husband, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Tim Stoy, 51, began organizing a ceremony to honor the veterans of Operation Dragoon.

"If we don't do it, their history will be forgotten," Monika Stoy said. "We need to do it while they are still alive."

Veterans flew in from California, Florida and Kansas to attend the ceremony. Retired Col. Douglas Dillard, 83, came from his home in Bowie. Dillard, a member of the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion, entered southern France during the invasion from a C-47 aircraft. At the time, he said, "it was a big adventure for me. I had no thoughts of being killed or wounded."

Dillard said he was grateful for the recognition. "A lot of people have not taken the time to look at it and understand the contribution it made," he said.

Pratt was unable to attend the ceremony. He sat in his living room across from his wife, far away from the day he sprinted across the beach gathering his troops. He talked about his brushes with death and the killings he witnessed. He pointed to a picture in his album of an injured American soldier he tried to help as he dodged a German sniper's bullets.

"We played a very vital role in the war, I always felt," he said.

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