‘Who more than self their country loved’

peo LeonStandifer bf 040.jpg
Leon Standifer holds the French Legion of Honor media he was awarded on April 26, 2012, in New Orleans (Photo by Bill Feig, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)

By George Morris

The headstones are there by the thousands, row on row. Throughout Western Europe, American dead from two world wars are at rest, many near the epic battlefields where they lost their lives.

Fifty years after he lost his dear wartime comrade, Leon Standifer didn’t go to any of those. Rather, he showed up in a tiny town in a corner of France where little real action took place. But even there, men of courage stood up.

And, in the case of Dale Proctor, fell. Standifer couldn’t let that be forgotten.

So, far from the grand ceremonies that marked other half-century remembrances, Standifer came to a country road outside Redene, a small Brittany town, where about 60 persons gathered to celebrate their liberation from Nazi Germany. Most who attended had lived through the occupation. Few, however, knew the man they specifically honored that day.

Standifer did.

Proctor was a member of the 94th Infantry Division and a native of David City, Nebraska. Their war was a strange one.

When Allied forces broke out of their Normandy foothold in July 1944, the Brittany ports of Brest, Lorient and St. Nazaire were key objectives. But Brest didn’t fall until Sept. 18, and Germans dug in to defend the other ports. With Gen. George Patton’s Third Army advancing rapidly westward — away from Brittany — priorities shifted.

When the 94th arrived in September, its duty was to contain the 25,000 Germans holed up in Lorient to prevent them from harassing Patton’s flank. Only no one told the American foot soldiers that this was their mission.

French resistance fighters slipped in and out of Lorient to report on German activities, and spies for the Germans did likewise. All the while, the 94th stayed put.

“The brave young FFI (French Forces of the Interior) soldiers who were helping us could not understand why the powerful and proud American army would not fight,” Standifer said. “We couldn’t explain it to them because we didn’t know, either.

“We thought any week we were going to take Lorient, and we couldn’t understand why we couldn’t hit the Germans hard. We had to hold the line. When they hit us, we could hit back. But until then, that’s the way it was. This is why Dale was killed.”

On Sept. 29, 1944, Proctor was at an outpost about 50 yards from the main American lines when he spotted a German patrol. It probably was scouting American defensive positions, perhaps seeking prisoners to take back for interrogation. Standifer believes there were 10 to 20 Germans. Proctor was alone.

Nonetheless, Proctor radioed for artillery fire, and once it came he began shooting with his rifle. That revealed his position. Although several Germans were killed and the patrol was routed, Proctor was wounded and bled to death. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

To Standifer, a Baton Rouge resident and retired LSU horticulture professor, Proctor’s end typified the glory and the tragedy of war.

“Our best men don’t back down,” Standifer said. “They die. There wasn’t any good reason for Dale to take on this whole patrol except he was Dale Proctor and he was out there to fight anybody who came, and he jumped them and they killed him. One man against 15 soldiers is too many. He shouldn’t have done it, but he wasn’t going to run.”

Given the scope of World War II, a single death in a backwater front was little noted except for friends and relatives. One of those friends was Frank Perammont. During the war, he was a 14-year-old boy who lived near the 94th’s front line. He came to the soldiers almost daily to practice his English. After the war, he became an English teacher.

“He said he had a terrible time his first year back in school after being with the Americans because our English was not all that nice,” Standifer said.

Standifer and Perammont kept in contact through the years. Standifer had planned to visit Lorient for a 94th Infantry 50th anniversary tour and in a letter to Perammont mentioned it would be nice to honor Proctor. Perammont approached the Redene town council and persuaded them to erect a memorial to Proctor to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their liberation.

The J.Y. Le Quemener family, which lives where Proctor was killed, offered to have the memorial plaque placed on their property. Mrs. Le Quemener, an interior designer, insisted on an attractive marker, paid for it and had it placed on a stone wall near the cornfield.

On Oct. 10, 1994, Standifer and his wife, Marie, attended the ceremony. Standifer addressed the crowd and, as the Star Spangled Banner was played, removed the American flag to unveil the plaque.

With gold inscription on beige marble, the plaque read, in French:

“Who more than self their country loved”  … In the cause of liberty, on Sept. 29, 1944,  Dale Proctor, an American soldier,  died here.

The first line, taken from “America the Beautiful,” was Standifer’s suggestion.

Some in the gathering had been French freedom fighters. When Standifer made the trip, he had hoped to find an FFI member he had known only by his first name, Emile. He had been a fisherman in Lorient, and Standifer remembered him as a skilled guerrilla fighter and a fun-loving character. Might he still be living there?

Apparently not. The FFI veterans thought Emile had died.

“Some of the FFI were really good but some of them were really rotten,” Standifer said. “Now, Emile was probably not a spy, but he was just a hooligan. He was funny. He was hilarious. We all liked him. You never knew what he was going to do.

“He was a street-wise fisherman, and he was an alcoholic. When Frank started talking to old FFI people, they said, ‘Well, he was one of that group that was so undisciplined we threw him out of the army.’”

That, Standifer said, was in stark contrast to American soldiers. The 94th led Patton’s spearhead into Germany the following January. The casualty rate for his company was 400 percent Standifer said.

Occasionally, Standifer said, he has heard people lament that America’s best and brightest young men had to die in such a war. He strongly disagrees.

“We came from good families and good schools,” Standifer said. “Who else owed the country more than we did? Dale would have felt that way. … He wasn’t afraid to die.”

A marble plaque along a French country road testifies to that.

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