Gordon Hearne, left, president of the Southern California chapter of Veterans… (Christina House, For The…)
On Dec. 16, 1944, 21-year-old Army Cpl. Gordon Hearne found himself in an hours-long gun battle with German soldiers in the Belgium countryside — one of countless such stories that marked the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge, Germany's last major offensive and a turning point in World War II.
On Saturday, Hearne, now 87, was formally thanked by King Albert II of Belgium for his service.
In a ceremony at Taix French Restaurant in Echo Park, Hearne was awarded the Knight of the Order of the Crown by Belgium's consul general in Los Angeles. Through the years, hundreds of U.S. servicemen have received the honor from a nation where one of the bloodiest battles of the war took place.
"It's for his personal merits, but it's also in recognition to all the veterans who served there — those who are still here with us and those who no longer are," said Geert Criel, the consul general. "I shudder to think what would have happened, how many more people would have died and suffered, if American forces hadn't blocked this last attempt by Germany to turn the war around."
Hearne, president of the Southern California chapter of Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, said he accepted the honor on behalf of his organization.
"I'm no hero, but there were a lot of genuine heroes among us," said Hearn, who went on to a career in advertising and marketing after the war and is trim enough to fit comfortably into his old Army uniform. "We have a little over a hundred members left in our group. Every time you start checking, somebody else has died."
Born in Inglewood, Hearne joined the Army in 1943. He landed on a body-strewn Omaha Beach on June 7, 1944, the day after D-day. It was the first of many close calls that, remarkably, left him physically unscathed.
"I had a lot of near-death experiences, but I never got a wound. Never got a scratch," he said.
On the first day of the Battle of the Bulge, Hearne and a buddy were in a farmhouse in Belgium when they heard an explosion. They went to investigate and came nearly face-to-face with a squad of German soldiers. They ran for cover and the bullets started flying.
"There were bullets hitting the ground on my right side and bullets hitting the ground on my left side," he said. "Finally, we jumped into an American gun pit."
From there, Hearne, his buddy and two soldiers manning a 40-millimeter gun engaged in a firefight that lasted hours.
When it was over, Hearne recalls walking through a forest of bodies.
"They ranged in age from 15 to 55 — boys and old men," he said. "This was Hitler's last gasp.... There were incidents like that all over that day. At the time, we didn't realize that this was part of the Battle of the Bulge."