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September 3, 2014

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70 years after WWII, two valley veterans to receive French Legion of Honor award

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Steve Marcus

World War II veteran Gaetano “Guy” Benza stands in his North Las Vegas home Wednesday, May 28, 2014. Benza and Davis Leonard, another local WWII veteran, will receive the French Legion d’Honneur on Friday. The award is the highest honor France bestows on citizens and foreign nationals.

World War II Veteran Gaetano ‘Guy’ Benza

World War II veteran Gaetano Launch slideshow »

World War II Veteran Davis B. Leonard

World War II veteran Davis B. Leonard poses at his home in Henderson Wednesday, May 28, 2014. Leonard and Gaetano Launch slideshow »

Every night, Davis Leonard relives the war.

As soon as the 91-year-old World War II veteran closes his eyes to sleep, he is transported from his Henderson home to the cockpit of his B-26 Marauder Bomber — Master Sgt. Leonard, navigator and bombardier. He finds himself in the sky, flying one of his 64 bombing missions, watching ammo dumps explode and bridges crumble.

Then he dreams he’s been hit and he's bleeding, or he discovers that his aircraft is on fire and he’s trying to crawl through to safety. Then he’s awake again, sweating and whole.

“You never stop having that thought, 'Why me?'” Leonard said. “I saw guys going down all around me.”

Leonard considers himself one of the lucky ones, surviving World War II without injury. He dropped bombs and navigated missions over Northern France, the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge, Rhineland and Central Europe. The war has never really ended for him.

Now, nearly 70 years later, the consulate general of France is awarding Leonard and Army veteran Gaetano Benza, of North Las Vegas, the French Legion of Honor medal for their service in France during World War II. The medal is the highest honor France bestows upon its citizens and foreign nationals. The medals will be awarded during a ceremony Friday.

“I’m terribly honored,” Leonard said. “It’s something that shows France is appreciative of what we did. I will wear it proudly.”

Both Benza and Leonard were surprised to learn they would be receiving the Legion of Honor. Neither knew each other during the war, but both spent significant time in France.

Benza served three years as an Army private in the 505th Port Battalion, 279th Port Company during World War II. He spent four months on Omaha Beach transporting supplies from boats to land under heavy fire during the invasion of Normandy.

The memories from those months bring tears to his eyes to this day. Sitting inside his North Las Vegas home decorated with yellowing photos from Army days and WWII artifacts, he recalls watching men drown in the choppy waters before they even reached land. He dug foxholes and dodged bullets and flying shrapnel.

“It was so hard,” Benza said. “I said goodbye to my parents many times.”

After the fighting, he saw the beach covered in blood and bodies.

“It was a terrible sight, but that’s war,” Benza said. “You try not to look at it, but it’s there.”

Just like Leonard, Benza knew he was one of the lucky ones to survive the war without injuries.

Leonard flew as part of the 9th Air Force bomb squadron in France. Before every mission, he wondered if he would return alive. Each time his plane would return riddled with holes from flak, but none of his crew members were injured.

It was luck.

Both men were decorated with medals and honors after the war for their service. Leonard earned several medals including the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with two silver and one bronze oak leaf, and he met President Ronald Reagan. Benza earned the World War II Victory medal and met President Barack Obama during his trip to France in 2009.

Neither man has stopped reliving the war, even as each carved out a life postwar. Leonard is retired and lives with his wife, Marilyn, but he flies his missions over and over again. Benza cuts hair at Jessie’s Barbershop, but he continues to share his experiences monthly with students at Nellis Air Force Base’s Airman Leadership School.

While neither ever expected to be honored nearly 70 years later for his service, both are thrilled. Leonard will be bringing 28 family members to the ceremony. Meanwhile, Benza calls it the highest honor he’s ever received — even greater than meeting the president.

“I’m being awarded a medal from the French government after 70 years,” Benza said. “Can you imagine that?”

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