PARIS — They have almost faded away, those young Americans who crouched once upon a time in the muddy trenches of France, braving machine-gun fire, artillery salvos and poison gas for what they were told would be the last war ever fought.
More than 2.1 million U.S. servicemen--doughboys, they were nicknamed--served in France and helped deliver the coup de grace to Germany and its allies in 1917 and 1918. To mark today's 80th anniversary of the end of World War I, the French government has launched a search for all surviving members of the American Expeditionary Forces and others who served in France to award them this country's highest medal, the Legion of Honor.
"We honor them with this decoration. But they honor us by accepting it," said Guy Wildenstein, who is the chairman of the association of Americans who have already received the distinction.
It will be a bittersweet ceremonial: No more than 1,600 of the late Gen. John J. Pershing's soldiers are alive today, according to an estimate from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Most are about 100 years old and are frail or in ill health.
Speed in locating them is vital because the Legion of Honor is not granted posthumously.
"It's tough to find them," said Bob Johnson of Veterans of World War I of U. S. A. He's sent applications to several doughboys he located, but they haven't written back. "How do you get the word out?"
Only a handful of the 110 World War I veterans in Los Angeles County had contacted the local French Consulate to apply, Vice Consul Yo-Jung Chen said. Some of those applicants will not be honored until a later date because of a paperwork logjam.
But the consulate plans to begin conferring the prized decoration, a white star suspended from a red ribbon, today, Veterans Day, which was created to mark the anniversary of the World War I armistice.
A French diplomat will pin the medals near the veterans' hearts, grasp them by both shoulders, kiss them on both cheeks and say, "In the name of the president . . . I am naming you a chevalier of the Order of the Legion of Honor."
William Zelnicker, who turned 100 on Oct. 13, is one Southern Californian looking forward to the moment. Other than Sunday visits from his sole surviving son, he says, he has nothing else to look forward to. During World War I, he stood in a trench and took a deep breath of poison gas.
It cost him a lung. The Army awarded him the Purple Heart and the Silver Star for bravery. Now, a machine helps him breathe at night. During the day, he spends hour after hour on a sagging bed at the Sepulveda Ambulatory and Nursing Center in North Hills.
With his drooping shoulders and a shock of white hair jutting upward like a plume of steam, it is hard to tell that Zelnicker was once a feisty youngster who enlisted in Providence, R.I., at age 17 and returned from France to happily work a job that paid $18 a week.
"It was a hard war," he says simply.
Feelings of Pride and Anticipation
Six weeks ago, his 76-year-old son informed him that he was eligible for the Legion of Honor. "I felt very proud of the French government," Zelnicker said, but his application was not processed in time for today's ceremony.
When he does get pinned, it should be a moment of excitement and companionship after years of loneliness in the federally subsidized home. Ten years ago, Zelnicker's wife, Anna, died. He now prays to God every day to take him so he can join her and another son lost in World War II.
Perhaps the best-known medal in the world, the Legion of Honor was created by Napoleon Bonaparte on May 19, 1802, to reward valor on the battlefield but also achievement in virtually all other fields of human endeavor.
Top U.S. soldiers, including Pershing, Dwight D. Eisenhower, William Westmoreland, H. Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin L. Powell, have ranked among the recipients. But the 550 living American "legionnaires" also include Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, actor Gregory Peck, composer Quincy Jones, TV news legend Walter Cronkite, cosmetics tycoon Estee Lauder, singers Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli and former President Reagan.
In June, President Jacques Chirac, who as French head of state is also Grand Master of the Order of the Legion of Honor, wrote President Clinton to request U.S. assistance in finding all eligible World War I veterans still alive. Similar searches are underway in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Portugal and other countries that were allied with France.
In 1995 and 1996, two successive French presidential decrees awarded the medal to 2,250 French World War I veterans.