World War II veteran

World War II veteran David Lester, 94, was awarded the National Order of the Legion of Honor, France's highest civilian recognition, for his World War II service in France. He served as a combat engineer for the U.S. Army. (KEVIN CHANG / Daily Pilot / July 16, 2013)

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Some things are still hard for David Lester to talk about, as they would be for anyone who's seen his friends die and rivers turn red with blood.

Eventually the 94-year-old Costa Mesa resident did open up, in the form of a 400-page manuscript, "A Combat Engineer," detailing his life and World War II experiences in Europe. He has since condensed it into a smaller book that has a strategically placed "Made in America" sticker on the cover.

Since last month, Lester has had something new to add to his memoirs: the National Order of the Legion of Honor from the French government. The award that dates to the days of Napoleon is the highest honor France grants to its citizens and foreign nationals.

Lester and five others received the medal during a private ceremony in Hawthorne earlier this summer.

The former Army soldier was acknowledged for his service in the liberation of France, the Battle of the Bulge and the Allied crossing into Germany.

"I was glad to get it," Lester said about receiving the award. "Any time your services are recognized, any time you do a good job, it pays."

Lester tried to bring some humor to the event. He told the French consul general merci, merci beaucoup — thank you, thank you very much — and later popped out a vive la France!

"That got a chuckle among the crowd," Lester said. "It was quite a crowd."

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Great Depression roots

The man whose great-great-grandfather was Davy Crockett isn't as fast as he used to be — "to think I used to climb mountains!" — but his mind is still sharp. Lester, born in May 1919, grew up poor on a "one-horse" farm outside Oklahoma City. The family's storm cellar, which they called their "fraidy hole," was stocked with enough emergency rations to last them through the worst tornado.

Over the years, the farm grew just about everything.

"We even grew rattlesnakes," Lester said with a quiet chuckle.

After WWII started in December 1941, Lester wanted to enlist but was given a "critical defense" deferment because of his job working on aircraft in San Diego. After the D-Day landings in June of 1944, he was finally able to enlist in the Army because, as he puts it, the United States by that point needed more men to fight than aircraft to fly.

He became a replacement member of the 30th Infantry Division, nicknamed the "Old Hickory" to honor President Andrew Jackson. It was formed during World War I using units from Tennessee and the Carolinas.

Being about 25 at the time of his enlistment, he was the "old man" among younger soldiers. He can still fondly remember their names and backgrounds.

Take Marcus Hudgens of Tennessee, who could hardly read and "came from so far in the hills that they probably had to pipe daylight to him," Lester said. "But by golly, he knew how to soldier. I used to write his letters home for him and read them to him."

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Becoming a combat engineer

When the Battle of the Bulge started in December 1944, then-Pfc. Lester was in a field hospital in Belgium recovering from frostbite and a case of walking pneumonia. But once news spread of Hitler's aggressive offensive through the Ardennes, only the most severely wounded stayed put.