By The Clarion Ledger
BYRAM — Seventy years after he entered the U.S. Army at 18, Gullick Bowen, 88, of Byram turned from steadying his walker to standing proud as the French Legion of Honor was pinned to his lapel Tuesday, just beneath an American flag pin.
Bowen returned the salute of French Col. Philippe Testart, French liaison officer to the U.S. Army at Fort Benning, Ga. Then, the smile that was ever ready at a reception of about 150 of his kinfolk, friends and fellow members of Country Woods Baptist Church in Byram flashed back to Bowen’s face as onlookers clapped and cheered.
“I’m just not used to this many people,” the World War II veteran said with a grin, in a rare break from well-wishers who dropped by in droves for handshakes, hugs and thanks for his service.
Bowen was part of the 141st Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division, in World War II. The men were among the first American troops to land on the European continent in the war, among the first troops to enter Rome and the first infantry regiment to land on the coast of southern France. It was the first regiment in the 7th Army to cross the Moselle River and the first of the 36th Division troops to enter Germany.
In an interview, Bowen shared details of his experience, including encounters with the French people. “Oh, they were good. They were very glad to see us.”
At the reception, Bowen was recalling the amphibious landing when former Sunday school teacher Glen Nations clapped a hand on his shoulder with, “Hey there, young whippersnapper!” Bowen was soon swallowed up by more old friends and family.
“Boy, I didn’t even know it was coming,” Bowen said of the French Legion of Honor. “It’s 70 years overdue.”
“He had fought for it. I had heard he was entitled to it,” said Bowen’s younger brother, Archie, the driving force behind the arrangements, with help from Keltoum Rowland, honorary consul of France for Mississippi, and Sen. Roger Wicker’s office. “We had a lot of people working on it. It came to a good conclusion, too.”
Research in recent weeks fleshed out details of Bowen’s service.
“He did not talk about that until recently,” said Nina Jean Bowen, his wife of 67 years and mother of their three sons. “The boys asked about it, growing up. I knew he was in the Army, but that was it.”
Memorabilia, spread on a table near the entrance, bore the marks of time, from a yellowed photo from his induction to an array of moth holes in the olive green jacket he wore.
But fresh in the minds of some younger participants Tuesday was the debt owed to members of what’s often referred to as “The Greatest Generation.”
Keeping that memory alive is a collective responsibility, Testart said, and he wanted his daughter there to feel that.
“My parents did the same when I was a kid. They were bringing me everywhere, and my father was making me visit battlefields. … He was living in Paris in 1944 and the first time he saw Americans, for him it was the vision of freedom.”
Testart’s daughter, Gabrielle, and Bowen’s great-granddaughter, Kailee Bowen, held the red pillow supporting the medal as it was awarded.