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Schaumburg grandpa awarded highest French honor for World War II heroics

Graham Paul Consul General France Chicago presenting LegiHonor medal World War II veteran James Butz Schaumburg theFrench Consulate Chicago IL

Graham Paul, Consul General of France in Chicago, presenting Legion of Honor medal to World War II veteran James Butz of Schaumburg, at theFrench Consulate, Chicago, IL , on Friday, March 1, 2013. | Ting Shen~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 3, 2013 6:15AM

After the medal was pinned on the left side of James Butz’s lapel, the 88-year-old man was called “Sir grandpa.”

Butz was awarded the French Legion of Honor — the highest French honor — and inducted as a chevalier, or knight, on Friday at the French Consulate in Chicago for his role in liberating France in World War II.

Butz, who fought in D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge and the Colmar Pocket during the war, accepted the award graciously in a room packed with relatives. He has 13 grandchildren and five children.

“At 88 I’m just tickled to be standing up today to receive this marvelous award from the government of France, and I am eternally grateful to them for remembering the greatest generation, many of whom are dead. I really appreciate it on their behalf,” Butz said, his voice breaking with emotion.

Butz suffers from several health problems, including leukemia and loss of sight from macular degeneration, and his family was able to get the medal early and surprised him with it on Christmas.

On Friday, the consul general of France in Chicago, Graham Paul, called Butz and all the other veterans heroes.

“Thanks to you and to our American friends, partners and allies, France has been in living in peace for the past six decades. You saved us, and we will never forget,” Paul said.

But Butz is humble about his role in the war.

“I’m not a war hero. The heroes are the ones that didn’t come back,” he said.

It all started when Butz, a shrimpy teen from Akron, Ohio, joined the Army in 1943 after first being rejected. He was eventually sent abroad in 1944.

It was that year Butz, a corporal, landed in Normandy on D-Day and was charged with protecting Army Rangers scaling the cliffs on Utah Beach.

But the harshest experience was the Battle of the Bulge, he said.

“I’d never been so cold, I’d never been so frozen, I’d never felt so completely all alone,” Butz said.

“We were on the northern side of the bulge and for six weeks — from Dec. 16, 1944 to Jan. 25 of 1945 — we fought in subzero weather, sleeping outdoors constantly,” Butz said. “It was the worst period of my life, but I am so grateful ... because the allies turned back the Germans ... and started pushing them back into Germany.”

On Christmas Day 1944, while in a small Belgian town, Butz was part of a group checking every house looking for Germans who may have been hiding when suddenly a gunman fired a machine gun “picking off” Butz’s comrades on the other side of the street.

“I’m on the same side as the machine guns, and they can’t see me, so I slide down ... and when I get down to the open window with the machine gun, I pulled the pin on a grenade and tossed it in, and when it exploded, I kicked the door down to the basement, and there were three young Germans who were gathering there ... getting ready to go back to work on us, and I put a new clip in my rifle, and I put bullets in all of them,” Butz said.

That earned him one of two Bronze Stars, among the awards he’s earned.

Butz, who now lives in Schaumburg, eventually returned to the U.S., married Helen, a girl he’d gone to school with, and took a job in Chicago. He and his wife were married for 48 years before she died in 1996.

And he attend the University of Notre Dame and made a career in the sporting equipment industry.

His ties to Notre Dame were clear as Butz and his family celebrated the honor Friday with a champagne toast.

“I’m still a fighting Irishman,” he said.

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