At age 95 he won’t be wearing any shining armor or sitting at King Arthur’s Round Table.
Yet U.S. Army World War II veteran Gene J. “Zoot” Snyder was granted the title of knight, accompanied by the Republic of France’s highest Legion of Honor Medal, for his actions as a paratrooper who helped free southern France of German occupation.
“In southern France I am a genuine real hero,” said Snyder, who now lives in Yuma’s Country Roads RV Park, when he is not at his Bishop, Calif. home, where his awards arrived from the French Embassy in Los Angeles.
Nicknamed “Zoot” for the zoot suit he wore when recruited into the Army, Snyder saw action with the Army’s elite A Company, 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 1st Battalion.
In fact, this year marks the 75th anniversary of France having been freed from the German occupation, and Snyder said that to this day they still hold holiday celebrations honoring those who gave them that freedom in the small towns throughout southern France.
“Every time we would liberate a town like that, there would be a giant celebration,” Snyder said. “And that continues on until right now.” When Snyder and his late wife returned once to tour those towns, he said, “They let the schools out. The school kids sang in English, sang songs for us — all kinds of stuff.”
“Besides the Legion of Honor medal, I have the Croix de Guerre — cross of war,” he added. The “War Cross” is awarded to individuals or groups for feats of bravery during the two World Wars.
The events that led to these honors are nothing like the tales of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table though.
Snyder’s European combat duties began in Italy north of Naples and up into the Tuscany area in June of 1944, he recalled. But in August of that year, he and his parachute combat team — about 3,000 paratroopers — parachuted into France some 40 to 50 miles inland east of Marseilles in southern France, all of which was German occupied.
“On our parachute jump we had all kinds of great experiences, as you could expect,” said Snyder of his one and only parachute jump. “Guys were scattered all over the countryside.“
Since the Air Force at that time did not have the modern navigation equipment, Snyder explained, the paratroopers landed some miles from their intended targets.
“We had one plane load of men, not involving me, in our contacts with the French underground,” Snyder said. “We knew where the home was of the general of all the troops of the German army in southern France. And we sent one plane load of guys ahead of the rest of the invasion to go capture the German general. But they parachuted the guys out about 20 miles away from where the general lived. So they never got there,” he laughed.
“Part of our group landed as far as 45 miles away from where we were supposed to have landed in France, but in a few days we got almost everybody together,” Snyder said. “Several of us worked with the French underground, mainly for our benefit, because they knew where the Germans were, and they knew the French countryside. They were a great help to us, and we were a great help to them because we had ammunition, guns and the force of our Army behind them, which really helped make our battle across France a lot easier.”
Upon landing, Snyder — rifleman, runner and radio operator for Company Headquarters — said that the rest of the time they fought just like regular infantry men.
“We fought our way back clear across southern France to Italy,” Snyder said. “It took us about ninety days, and during that time we went from town to town to town. And in each town, we chased out the Germans — killed, captured or drove them on.”
During that event he and his fellow paratroopers were in combat all the time, Snyder said. He said that they had no barracks or showers or other amenities afforded today.
“We had to go 24/7 nonstop forever,” he said. “Half the time we were beyond wherever we could be resupplied. We were always in trouble with food and ammunition and stuff like that. After we’d go through, the regular Army would start moving in behind us. It never was a long, long ways back to where the supplies were, but it was always a few miles. And it was a hazardous journey to go from where we were back to where the supplies were. Sometimes we’d have to go for a couple or three days to get to be resupplied.”
French civilians were not much better off during the war either, Snyder recalled.
“It was just unbelievable all the conditions — the civilian people run out of everything. There’s no water, there’s no electricity. The sewers don’t work. Nothing works. There’s no food supply. Rural people are way better off than city people. City people are the ones that really suffer. Rural people — some of them do okay — some of them have a lot of supplies on hand year around. Especially with the water and toilet and stuff. That didn’t change for them.”
After they had rid southern France of the Germans, they were sent to northern France in December of 1944. By Dec. 16, the Battle of the Bulge had begun in Belgium.
“We were called on to help stop that. And we actually stopped it at the two little villages of Soy and Hotton, two little villages in Belgium. And that was the point over which was the farthest place that the Germans got. And then we stayed in that battle until we pushed all the way back to the Ruhr River in Germany, clear across Belgium and Luxemburg. And it took all winter. It was terrible, just really bad. The weather was terrible. We didn’t have the right kind of clothes and we didn’t have near enough supplies and anything like that.”
Snyder said that during the Belgium Bulge, they were attached to “all different kinds of units: the 75th Infantry Division, the 3rd Armored Division, the 7th Armored Division, the 82nd Airborne Division.”
At the Ruhr River, Snyder’s unit was attached to General Patton’s, whose Army division had already crossed the Durbin Frontier, moving deeply into Germany, Snyder recalled. The paratroopers readied themselves at an airfield, to aid Patton.
“If he got into any trouble or any problem with the head of his column, we were there to go rescue them out,” Snyder said. “And naturally, they went clear over till they met the Russians, and lucky for us we didn’t have to go again.”
When the armistice came in Europe, the surviving paratroopers were given the option of staying for the occupation of Germany or going to invade Japan, Snyder recalled, with about half going to each country.
“I chose to stay for the occupation, which was the wrong choice,” Snyder grinned. “The guys that chose to go on to the invasion of Japan were promised a 30-day furlough in the States before they went to Japan. And while they were returning to the States for the furlough, the war on Japan ended. When they got to the States, all that wanted out of the Army got out. And us guys that stayed for the occupation had to stay in another six months,” he laughed. “So I got sent to Berlin, Germany.”
In Berlin, the Army formed a platoon — some 30 men — of the tallest soldiers. At 6’4” Snyder was the tallest.
“They gave us special uniforms with white scarves and white laces in our boots and white gloves and chrome plated stuff,” Snyder said. “And we did honor escort service for visiting generals and General Zhukov of the Russian Army. We stood in a formation when General Dwight Eisenhower came or left his headquarters. So I did that for a few months until I got sent back home to the States.”
When Snyder had faced his first combat back in Italy, he had been wounded within the first couple of days. An Army medic took care of his wounds, and since there was nowhere to evacuate him, he continued his duties, never missing a day of combat. Subsequently, he was awarded the Purple Heart.
Snyder’s honors from the Republic of France, were accompanied by a letter from Consul General of France, Christophe Limoine.
“By decree of the President of the Republic of France, Mr. Emmanuel Macron, you have been appointed a Chevalier (Knight) of the French National Order of the Legion of Honor,” the letter states in part. “This award testifies to President Macron’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 Allies’ decisive role in the liberation of our country during World War II.”
Historically, the letter notes that Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 created the Legion of Honor to “acknowledge services rendered to France by people of exceptional merit. The French people will never forget your courage and devotion to the great cause of Freedom.”
Snyder says he has no desire to repeat his wartime experiences.
“Wars are terrible,” he said. “I never want to see another one.”
He estimates that about half of the paratroopers lived through the whole war. The other half were casualties. Although a few of the latter half were killed, most were wounded badly enough to be hospitalized, put into some other unit, or hospitalized and discharged. Most of those currently living are either housebound or disabled.
Returning to California after the War, Snyder, a licensed civil engineer, was in charge of building Route 58 from Bakersfield to Barstow.
His fellow paratroopers are mostly gone now.
“I’m one of only a few that are still (here).” Snyder said. Then laughing, he said, “My nurse says I’m in perfect shape, but I feel real good. I’m still able to drive. I can’t believe how lucky I am and how blessed I am.”