French Republic honors twins for WWII service
MCALESTER, Okla. (AP) – Twin brothers Claude and Clyde Stokes of McAlester have been honored by a grateful nation for their bravery and service aboard a tank destroyer with the U.S. Army during World War II – with the nation in this case being the French Republic.
Approximately 350 individuals attended a ceremony held Aug. 13 at the First Baptist Church in McAlester to watch the brothers as they were presented the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
Grant Moak, the honorary consul of France in Oklahoma City, personally pinned the medals to the jackets of both brothers.
Claude Stokes arose for his medal presentation. Moak leaned down to present Clyde Stokes, who was in a wheelchair, with his medal.
As Moak leaned forward, he briefly spoke in French as he presented the commendations to the two brothers.
It capped the end to an hour-long ceremony that included video presentations, including one from U.S. Senator James Lankford.
The McAlester News-Capital reports that the Stokes twins are 93 years old and set to celebrate their 94th birthday in November.
They joined the U.S. Army in the early 1940s and served together aboard tank destroyers – one of which they dubbed “The Oklahoma Wildcat.”
Their exploits became well-known as they and their fellow crew members fought in North Africa and then Europe during World War II – when they literally battled their way across Italy, France and Germany.
Along the way, their service resulted in commendations from the U.S. military, including the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart – presented to both brothers when they were wounded during separate incidents during the war.
For the Legion of Honor Ceremony at the First Baptist Church, a large display in the church’s lobby displayed mementos and photographs regarding the Stokes twins and their time in the military.
Moak seemed impressed by the community and church support shown to the Stokes brothers during presentation the event.
“I’m blown away,” he said. “It’s absolutely fantastic.”
Moak also spoke of the origins of the honors the Stokes twins received from the French government.
“The Legion of Honor was created in 1802 under the first French Republic when they abolished the aristocracy and established an order based on merit,” Moak said. It remains the most prestigious of of honors, he said.
Originally awarded only to the French, it is now open to U.S. service members who fought in France to help liberate the French during World War II.
Among those congratulating the brothers on Sunday were District 7 State Sen. Larry Boggs, R-Red Oak, along with District 18 State Rep. Donnie Condit, D-McAlester, and District 17 State Rep. Dr. Brian Renegar, D-McAlester.
Boggs said he felt pleased to be in attendance in his capacity as vice-chairman of the Senate Veterans Committee.
New McAlester Army Ammunition Plant Commander Col. Joseph D. Blanding also paid his respects to the Stokes twins. Friends, such as Gary Boyd, stopped by to speak with them and to look at their new medals.
Boyd said he and his twin sister, Linda, share a special bond with the Stokes brothers.
“We share the same birthday,” he said. “We’ve been ‘birthday buddies’ for years.”
Rodney Briggs served as master of ceremonies for the event, and as it concluded, he asked everyone to join him in a rendition of “God Bless America.”
Afterward, he spoke of how he felt about seeing the Stokes brothers honored.
“Having grown up in the 1950s and ‘60s in church, I’ve known them all my life,” Briggs said. “It’s definitely an honor for me to be a part of it. Noting the large number of people who attended, Briggs said “It’s great for a Sunday afternoon.”
Among those stopping by to look at the mementos on display were Janice Stanczyk, Charlene Doyle and Bob Smiley.
“Oh my goodness, that was remarkable,” Doyle said. “What’s sad is the younger generations coming up do not understand patriotism.”
A number of children who were at the ceremony, accompanied by their parents or grandparents, had a chance to see patriotism in action during the program leading up the medal presentations.
Stanczyk referred to the turnout for the event.
“I’m glad to see Oklahoma hasn’t forgotten them,” she said.
Another ceremony attendee, Carla House, said her father-in-law, Earl Drew House, was killed in action while fighting to help liberate France during World War II.
A letter from then-French Consulate General of France Sujiro Seam recently informed the Stokes brothers they were set to be honored. The letter came from the consulate’s regional office in Houston, Texas.
“I am pleased to inform you that by decree of the President of the French Republic you have been appointed a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor,” Seam said in a letter sent to both of the Stokes brothers. In English, a Chevalier is known as a Knight.
“This award testifies to the President’s high esteem for your merits and accomplishments. In particular, it is a sign of France’s infinite gratitude and appreciation for your personal and precious contribution to the United States’ decisive role in the liberation of our country during World War II,” Seam continued in the letters.
“The French people will never forget your courage and your devotion to the great cause of freedom,” Seam concluded in his letters to the Stokes twins.
The Stokes twins were still teens – only 19 – when they fought their way across North Africa, Italy, France and finally Germany. Their family and friends back home and people in the other Allied nations as well, were kept aware of their exploits through a series of dispatches written by reporters with the Associated Press.
They fought during the Italian campaign as members of the Company C, 636th Tank Destroyer Battalion. Both brothers and the rest of their crew were presented the Silver Star for gallantry for their heroic actions on September 13, 1933, in Solerno, Italy, when they knocked out five Nazi tanks, an armored half-track, an ammunition truck and a pill-box.
They also took a house harboring Nazi soldiers and helped capture 180 enemy infantrymen.
Claude and Clyde Stokes were able to serve together only because U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt granted them special permission.
After the deaths of the Sullivan brothers – five brothers who were serving together during World War II who all died after their ship sank – the military issued a decree to separate brothers who were serving together in combat. The idea was to prevent other families from suffering a similar tragedy.
However, the Stokes brothers’ father sent a personal letter to President Roosevelt asking that his sons be allowed to serve together. The president agreed and sent the Stokes twins a letter in case they ever needed to prove it if someone in the military tried to separate them. They had to show the letter several times so they could stay together during their years of service.
Now, these many years later, they were together again for the award ceremony at the First Baptist Church.
So what did Moak whisper to the brothers in French as he pinned the medals to their jackets during the presentation ceremony?
Moak himself provided the translation:
“In the name of the president of the Republic of France, we bestow upon you the medal of Chevalier in the National Order of the Legion of Honor,” said Moak.
Knowing the brave sacrifices and actions of the Stokes brothers during World War II, it’s fitting that not just one nation, but now two nations on different continents, have honored them for their service.