When Japanese planes dropped bombs on Pearl Harbor, Ellington Franklin knew the odds were good that he would be drafted.
So he kissed his young wife, Doris, said goodbye and joined his brother-in-law in enlisting in the Army Air Corps.
“Airplanes sounded a lot better than the infantry,” said his son, Donald Franklin, recalling the stories his father — a longtime Hoover resident — told him. “Any way you slice it, it was better than sleeping in the mud and freezing to death in the infantry.”
On Jan. 29, the government of France honored Ellington and six other World War II veterans from Alabama and Mississippi as Knights of the Legion of Honor, one of the highest honors given in recognition of service to the people of France. Ellington, who has lived in Hoover with Doris for 35 years, earned the distinction through his service as a radio operator in the 81st Troop Carrier Squadron.
The consul general of France based in Atlanta was the one to present Franklin and the six other veterans their award at Montgomery’s city hall. Others receiving the Knight of the Legion of Honor distinction were from Homewood, Huntsville, Sheffield, Madison, Mississippi and Ripley, Mississippi. All but one of them are still alive. One of the soldiers from Mississippi was represented by his son.
Founded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the National Order of the Legion of Honor recognizes eminent services to the French Republic. Foreign nationals who have served France or the ideals it upholds may receive a distinction from the Legion of Honor.
American veterans who risked their lives during World War II and who fought on French territory qualify to be decorated as Knights of the Legion of Honor. Veterans must have fought in one of the four main campaigns of the Liberation of France: Normandy, Provence, Ardennes or northern France.
Donald said his father left the United States on Christmas Day 1943 after training in the Air Corps. A roundabout route through South America and west Africa landed Ellington in the United Kingdom just after the arrival of 1944. There he trained to carry paratroopers for the massive invasion effort being planned at Normandy Beach in France.
D-Day started early for Ellington: At 1:30 a.m. on June 6, 1944, he was cruising over the coast of France to drop in paratroopers. And this was no bomber flying far out of sight; troop carriers had to fly “low and slow” for the soldiers to exit and land accurately.
His plane returned to England as dawn was breaking, but his day was not done.
“My dad — somewhat unique — went to Normandy twice on D-Day,” Donald said. “They told him to get some sleep, but he always said he was shaking too much to sleep.”
That afternoon, his plane returned to France towing glider infantry in its wake. Donald said his father was always proud that his entire squadron survived D-Day.
“He had a busy June 6,” Donald said.
After the invasion of Normandy, Ellington was on hand for almost every European war effort that required a carrier plane. His plane dropped paratroopers, ammunition, food and other supplies for the invasion of southern France, the invasion of Holland and the Battle of the Bulge, among others. Typically they would carry a load of wounded soldiers on the return trip.
“Most of their airfields when they would land to bring supplies… (were) cow pastures,” Donald said.
Later in the war effort, Ellington also helped evacuate French citizens who had been pressed into labor efforts during the occupation of France.
Ellington was prepared to continue his duties during the planned invasion of Japan. While he was on leave in July 1945 to see 13-month-old Donald for the first time, however, the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. Instead of being told to report to the West Coast for the invasion, Ellington was told to discharge and stay home with his family.
After World War II, Ellington worked in the telephone industry until he retired. He would frequently talk about his service with Donald and his sister, telling them that he was glad he went but would not want to repeat it. Donald was the one who decided to nominate his father for the Legion of Honor.
“From D-Day on, he was involved in every airborne drop or glider tow mission that occurred in Europe,” Donald said. “I’m very proud.”