Sixty-six years after he stormed onto Omaha Beach in France in the early hours of World War II's D-Day invasion, Alfred Pepper, now 96, was awarded the French Legion of Honor medal in his Palo Alto home.
He was surrounded by 20 family members and friends during the ceremony Friday (Dec. 17) afternoon.
Pepper rarely spoke of his contributions to the World War II effort during his long life, according to his daughter, Jan.
But Romain Serman, Consul General of the Republic of France, described the horrors that Pepper must have gone through in those first hours of landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day: the bloodshed, the casualties, and pulling out the bodies of his friends and comrades, Serman said.
"It is really difficult for me to imagine how much courage and bravery it took," Serman said, in an emotional speech in Pepper's living room in the Barron Park neighborhood.
"Courage and bravery are precisely the qualities Napoleon wanted to reward when he created the award in 1802," Serman said of his country's highest honor.
Serman removed the medal, a white-enameled five-ray star on a wreath of leaves with a gold medallion in the center, ringed by blue enamel, from a box. It sat alongside numerous medals that Pepper received for his service while in the U.S. Army during the war, including a Bronze Star.
He pinned the red-ribbon medallion to Pepper's chest. Pepper remained silent but looked proud, as family members wiped away tears.
Pepper's children learned only that very afternoon that their father had been rendered unconscious for 12 days after being shelled while fighting in Anzio, Sicily. After that, he was shipped to Liverpool, England, and the next place he landed was Omaha Beach, just two hours into the D-Day invasion.
"He only told me about it," said his 93-year-old brother, Ralph Pepper, who served in the U.S. Navy during the war. Pepper never shared that story with anyone else, he said.
Jan Pepper's eyes grew moist as she sat beside her father.
"I'm really proud of him. I wish I could be as brave as my father. He's just so brave. When I get scared, I think of him," she said.
Up on the cliffs above Omaha Beach, more than 9,000 soldiers are buried. Pepper and the other brave soldiers fought for six hours until they could secure the narrow strip of sand.
"He's lucky to be alive," Giulio Chioini, father-in-law to Pepper's son, Don, said.
Pepper saluted as rain gently pattered outside. He remained silent. But he smiled.