Seventy-three years after end of World War II, U.S. Army veteran Xenophon “Fonda” Doudalis has a new and distinguished medal for his service all those years ago.
On Friday, the 94-year-old Des Plaines resident, dressed in a gray suit and Army cap, was awarded the French Legion of Honor, the highest French government order recognizing military and civilian merit. The honor was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.
Guillaume Lacroix, Chicago-based consul general of France, presented Doudalis with the medal of honor during a ceremony at Des Plaines City Hall that featured local and state government representatives, military veterans and members of Doudalis’ family.
“It’s a great honor for me to be with you here today to honor a true American hero,” Lacroix told the crowd.
“Only the French president, the head of state, and before him, Napoleon, has the constitutional authority to name a person in the Order of the Legion of Honor,” Lacroix added. “This is the highest honor in my country.”
Doudalis, a resident of Des Plaines since 1962 and a sergeant in the U.S. Army during World War II, was chosen as a Legion of Honor recipient for helping to liberate French cities and villages as he and his army unit, the 281st Engineer Battalion, serving under Gen. George Patton, made their way through France on the way to Germany, Lacroix said. Doudalis and his unit arrived in Normandy on Dec. 29, 1944, and, as they advanced through the country, the troops often came under heavy enemy fire, forcing them to scatter, he said.
At one point, Doudalis took shelter in an abandoned bicycle factory and then used one of the bicycles to help search for the rest of his unit, “often under consistent fire,” Lacroix said.
After crossing the border into Germany, “you probably thought the worst was behind you,” Lacroix told Doudalis. “And you didn’t know what was lying ahead. At the end of April 1945, you discovered the horrors of Dachau concentration camp where 32,000 men, women and children were held prisoners.”
Doudalis was among the first U.S. soldiers to liberate the camp, Lacroix said, explaining that his assignment was to photograph the area and then help rescue the camp’s prisoners.
“The dreadful images of those days will haunt you for the rest of your life,” Lacroix noted.
Shortly after his remarks, and following a roomful of applause, Lacroix pinned the Legion of Honor medal on Doudalis’ lapel, with State Rep. Marty Moylan and Stephen Arango, a retired U.S. Army Reserve major, at his side.
Living up to his grandson’s description of him as a humble man, Doudalis’ speech was simple, but heartfelt.
“It is an honor to accept this,” he said. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
It was Diana Anastazia of Project Join Us, a design company that also raises money for U.S. military and charitable organizations, who made it possible for Doudalis to receive the Legion of Honor.
Anastazia said she had heard about Doudalis’ World War II service through his son-in-law, John Maag, who is involved with the Des Plaines History Center. Learning that Doudalis had been among U.S. forces that liberated French cities and villages, Anastazia, who had already helped another World War II veteran, John Chrenka, apply for the Legion of Honor, was inspired to see the same recognition bestowed on Doudalis as well.
“I feel like God places me in the path of some of these people and I have to do something,” she said.
The process involved military research by Anastazia and others, as well as speaking to Doudalis about his own recollections, she explained. Hearing that he had been among liberating forces of Dachau concentration camp was personal for Anastazia, who explained that her father, a Polish Catholic, was a survivor of the Holocaust as well.
“This is the icing on the cake,” Anastazia said of Friday’s ceremony for Doudalis.
Doudalis’ daughter, Valerie Maag, and his grandson, Matthew Doudalis, both said they were initially unaware the family patriarch was eligible for such a distinguished French honor.
“All my life, I didn’t know much about the Army,” Maag acknowledged. “Now, he’s talking so much about it. He used to just talk about the ‘fun’ things.”
Matthew Doudalis, who attended the ceremony with his wife, Lisa, and children Mia and Isabella, said his father began talking a lot more about his wartime service after he participated in the Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., about six years ago. He remembers seeing photographs his father took of Dachau as well.
“He would tell us some of the stories when we got old enough,” Matthew Doudalis said. “Explaining it doesn’t even do it justice when you’re there and you’re watching it firsthand, seeing bodies towed away on trucks like commodities.”
Learning he was going to receive the Legion of Honor was an emotional moment for his father, Matthew Doudalis said.
“He’s always been a guy who put everyone else before him, so he was real emotional when he found out this was all about him and he was being recognized for his work in World War II,” he said.
“He was always real humble, so that translated to us being humble people and wanting to serve others — not just in the military, but in other ways,” Matthew Doudalis added.
According to Stephen Arango, also of Project Join Us, there are approximately 93,000 recipients of the Legion of Honor medal, including Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur.
“He is exceptional company,” Des Plaines Ald. Carla Brookman noted of Doudalis.
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