Manuel Mercedes came to the United States in a somewhat unusual way. Having served in the Spanish navy, he saw what Nazi Germany was doing to his country and wanted none of that, so in 1943 he stowed away on a ship bound for New York.
Seventy-three years later, the former stowaway received the highest award the country of France can bestow on an individual – the Legion of Honor. He joined nine other area World War II Veterans who received the medal during a ceremony in Pinellas Park July 14, France’s Bastille Day.
Mercedes, now 99 years old, was 25 when he snuck aboard a ship and was discovered after they docked in New York. At that, he was offered two choices his son John Mercedes said.
“He served in the navy in Spain, and once he left the navy to go home to his mother and brothers, he noticed the German bombers and fighters coming over to Spain and he didn’t want to be around for that,” John said. “He stowed away on a ship to America and landed in New York where they caught him. They gave him two choices – we’re going to deport you or you can fight for your citizenship by joining our armed forces.”
Mercedes quickly decided on the latter and soon found himself training in the United States and then in England to become an Army medic. In June 1944, he took part in the largest amphibious invasion of WWII, the D-Day invasion of Normandy, landing on Utah Beach as part of the 9th Infantry Division.
Before the end of the war, Mercedes was also involved in other historic battles, including the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of Berlin. Along the way he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal and was sworn in as a U.S. citizen.
“My commander asked me if I wanted to become a citizen, so I said yes,” Mercedes said. “I was in France and they sent me up to the headquarters. That’s where I saw (Generals) Patton and Eisenhower.”
Before leaving the Army, he also worked on graves registration, helping ensure that military members who were killed in action were properly identified and honorably interred in U.S. military cemeteries within France.
Discharged in 1946, Mercedes settled initially in Albany, New York, where he worked in the construction business. He met his wife, Eva, and was married in 1949 before moving to Florida. Eva passed away in November 2015 at the age of 101 and Mercedes now lives with his son, John, and daughter-in-law Tammy, a nurse manager at James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital’s Primary Care Annex.
It was Tammy who initially saw a story saying the government of France was looking to honor WW II Veterans who had helped liberate their country from the German invaders.
“I contacted the French government and sent his DD 214 and all his military information there to see if he was eligible,” John said. “When they deemed him eligible, it took almost a year and we were notified by the French embassy in Miami that there would be a presentation ceremony up here.”
Mercedes and the other Veterans received their Legion of Honor awards from Maj. Gen. Bernard Commings, the senior national representative from France to the United States Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. Each was presented in the name of the president of the Republic of France.
“We will never forget your sacrifice,” Commings told the assembled Veterans. “On behalf of the French armed forces, I extend to you a debt of gratitude and my warmest congratulations. Thank you for your sacrifice, and thank you for your service.”