Palo Alto resident Alfred Pepper has been a man of few words all of his life. The 96-year-old World War II veteran spoke little about his war experiences on two continents, according to his daughter, Jan Pepper.
But if actions speak louder than words, as the adage goes, then Pepper's actions have spoken volumes. He is scheduled to receive the medal of the French Legion of Honor at his home Friday (Dec. 17) for his role in helping to liberate France.
Romain Serman, the French Consul General in San Francisco, will present the medal to him, Jan said.
"He's happy about getting the medal," she said, noting that he is unable to speak much after a recent illness.
In person, Pepper looks younger than his 96 years. His full head of hair, which is not entirely gray, is swept back from his forehead. Shown a photo of himself in his military uniform -- he cut a dashing figure -- Pepper nodded his head approvingly.
The former San Leandro shoe-store manager and U.S. Army First Lieutenant was part of Big Red One, the First Infantry Division that invaded France on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The invasion started at 6 a.m.; Pepper rolled onto Omaha Beach in an armored personnel carrier at 8 a.m. and remained pinned on the beach by the Germans until noon. The beach was then secured.
Pepper was inducted into the army in 1941 and trained in Alabama, California and Hawaii. His discharge papers note that he was in intelligence. He attended officer-candidate school in 1942 and was dispatched to Africa in May 1943. He was part of a group that invaded Sicily and was later shipped to Liverpool, England, where he remained training until the Omaha Beach invasion.
He received numerous medals, including the Bronze Star for bravery, World War II Victory medal, American Defense service medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign medal and a European-African-Pacific Campaign medal with one Silver Service Star and a Combat Infantry badge 1st Award.
But he "never talked about the war, and he never went camping because he said they camped a lot in the war," Jan said.
Fifteen years ago, when Pepper met with veterans while receiving medical care at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, he began to talk about the war. "More came to the forefront" as he began to interact with medical staff, who showed their appreciation to the veterans, she said.
Jan said she wrote to the Consul General asking about the award for her father after reading a news article about another man who received the Legion of Honor medal. She submitted his enlistment record, where he served and a list of his awards.
The French ambassador in Washington, D.C., Pierre Vimont, notified Pepper about the award Oct. 7. The letter hints at the magnitude of his service. The president of the French Republic, Nicolas Sarkozy, signed the decree on Sept. 28. Pepper is now a "Chevalier" of the Legion of Honor.
The award "testifies to the President of the French Republic's high esteem for your merits and accomplishments. In particular it is a sign of France's true and unforgettable gratitude and appreciation for your personal, precious contribution to the United States' decisive role in the liberation of our country during World War II.
"The Legion of Honor was created by Napoleon in 1802 to acknowledge services rendered to France by persons of great merit. The French people will never forget your courage and your devotion to the great cause of freedom."
Jan described her father as a kind, intelligent, easy-going man who was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., and graduated from high school at age 16. He can do a lot of math in his head and took French II and III simultaneously, she said.
Pepper and his wife, Rosaline, moved to Palo Alto in 1983. He continued to work until he was 87. He took up tennis in his late 50s and continued to play regularly until age 89. He and Rosaline were married for 62 years. She died four weeks ago but knew of the award, Jan said.
"He's someone you look up to. He's a nice, kind person and very family-oriented. He always worked very hard. He has a good sense of humor, and he was playful when we were kids. We would jump on him, and he liked it," she said.
Pepper was supportive of his son and daughter.
"He defended us. If we felt a certain way, he would back us up," she said.