Floyd Exeter remembers France as “a pleasant place,” though when he first visited in 1944, German SS troops tried their best to kill him.
That was war, and Exeter didn’t take it personally.
“If you wanted a friend in France, all you had to do was be a friend,” Exeter said this week in his Lakewood kitchen.
Now 90 years old, Exeter has seen much of Europe and a great deal of the United States — and enjoyed every stop.
Well, almost. There was an Army camp in Mississippi where Exeter, an Idaho boy, had to deal with heat, humidity and, as he recalls, “cobras.”
The second time Exeter saw France, in the mid-1960s, he took his wife and six kids.
“He showed us where he’d laid in a tank rut to avoid enemy fire,” said Kim Exeter, one of five daughters. “It wasn’t very deep.”
It wasn’t, her father agreed, but he burrowed into it as deeply as he could back in 1945, when machine gun fire was chewing up the earth all around him.
That the young soldier wound up on the ground at all, let alone trying to crawl into it, was something of an unhappy coincidence of war. He was drafted into the Army in March 1943.
“A few months into my training, in Fort Knox, Kentucky, I got a three-day leave,” Exeter said. “In Louisville, they were giving tests that, if you did well on, allowed you to transfer to the (Army) Air Corps for pilot training.”
Exeter passed the tests, and for five months he trained with the Air Corps. A week after his group graduated, it was awaiting orders to go to San Antonio for more flight training.
Instead, he and his entire group were told the war in Europe had changed. The need for pilots was not as great as the need for infantry.
Exeter, a private first class, was transferred to the 63rd Infantry Division and shipped off to France in November 1944. He fought in the Rhineland and Ardennes campaigns.
“When we went toward the front, where German SS troops were giving us a hard time, I carried a .30-caliber air-cooled machine gun,” he said. “The problem with that gun was that if you fired it, it overheated and burned out the rifling in the barrel.
“I fired about 25 rounds one time, including tracer rounds, and then the tracer rounds were flying all over the place — it was like fireworks.”
Not only were his rounds not going where he wanted them, but the tracers were lighting up his position, which drew enemy fire.
“I felt a strong blow to my head, and it turned out a German round had hit me in the helmet above my right eye,” Exeter said. “It banged around inside my helmet — left three or four holes in the lining there — and exited the back of my helmet.
“I felt the jagged little hole in the back of my helmet and my first thought was, ‘Am I dead?’ ”
No, but tiny pieces of his helmet were embedded in his nose. Since he was still alive, he picked up his gun and kept moving forward.
Asked if he considered that bravery, Exeter shook his head, his eyes moist.
“I didn’t want to be a quitter,” he said.
The Army felt differently, and Exeter was awarded the Bronze Star for his actions that day. The French gave him the Croix de Guerre for a “distinguished act of heroism.”
That was 68 years ago.
After the war, Exeter returned to Pocatello, Idaho, finished college and became a high school history teacher. He met, courted and married Barbara Priest, had six children and left teaching after 17 years.
He took a civil servant job in 1961 running Army Education Centers and was stationed at Fort Lewis. He also spent a few years operating centers in Germany.
“In 1964, I built this house and I still live in it,” Exeter said of his Lakewood home.
Two years ago, Barbara died. Exeter does the best he can without her.
Last year, daughter Kim heard about another French citation — the Chevalier Legion of Honor medal — created by Napoleon in 1802. She applied on behalf of her dad.
The French consul will award Exeter the medal in Seattle on Dec. 20. Roughly 10,000 former American GIs have received it. It’s considered the highest decoration bestowed by France, and must be approved by that country’s president.
Apparently, after all these years, Exeter still has friends in France.