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Vet, 104, awarded French military honor for WWII service

The French Legion D’Honneur, the highest decoration in France, lies on a table at a French National Day celebration in Tampa, Florida, July 14, 2014. Four World War II veterans received the medal for their service during the war. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Ned T. Johnston/Released)

A 104-year-old Gainesville World War II veteran was honored by the French government for his service Tuesday.

Tam “Sonny” Cato was awarded Knight in the Legion of Honor, or “Légion d’Honneur.”

The award was created to recognize and reward military and civil merits in service of France. It is the highest distinction that can be awarded in France to a French citizen or a foreigner.

It is given by decree of the President of the French Republic.

Cato was recognized with the award Tuesday morning at the First Baptist Church of Alachua. French Consul General Clément Leclerc pinned the award to Cato’s plaid shirt. Photos show Cato smiling and shaking Leclerc’s hand.

Cato was born in Alachua County on March 14, 1915, on a 653-acre farm owned by his father. Cato’s father taught him the ins and outs of the dairy business — a career he had planned to pursue and later did. But first, the military came calling.

Cato was drafted and was sworn into the Army at Starke’s Camp Blanding in February 1941, less than six months after the United States instituted the first peacetime draft. He thought he’d only have to serve a year and he’d be out, but the development of World War II changed that thought quickly.

He joined the 390th Engineers General Service Regiment after attending the Officer Candidate School for Corps Engineers in September 1942.

The regiment was later deployed to France, arriving at Omaha Beach 22 days after the Battle of Normandy to repair destroyed roads, bridges and train tracks.

Cato led his regiment in the reconstruction of a railway northwest of Carentan. He later participated in the resistance movement Libération-Nord, the Rhineland Offensive operation, and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

Cato told The Sun Wednesday he was honored to receive the award.

“It feels like a great honor,” he said. “I was doing my duty as were the rest of the boys over there. We were glad to get it over and come home alive.”

Cato loves his family, his time in the military and hunting.

At 102 years old, he killed two turkeys with one shot — a story his family backed up as legitimate when The Sun first interviewed Cato in November.

Cato then said he doesn’t know how he’s lived to be well past 100, but he’s going to have fun as long as he can.

In a letter from Leclerc, Cato was commended for helping liberate France from the Nazis.

“Your decision to fight for freedom in World War II was admirable, demonstrating your courage and selflessness. Without you, and those who fought alongside you, France and Europe may have never been liberated from the Nazi barbarity,” Leclerc wrote. “The solidarity that you showed to our country and people will never be forgotten and will be considered as an example to follow for future generations.”

Congressman Ted Yoho, Susan Crowley, assistant vice president of UF community relations; Alachua Mayor Gib Coerper, a commander at Camp Blanding and other military members attended the award ceremony.

Cato joins a fraternity of people like Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Dwight Eisenhower and many others who have received the award.


© 2019 The Gainesville Sun, Fla.

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