West County WWII veteran receives French Legion of Honor Medal
By: Jim Erickson
Some 100 family members and friends were at VFW Post 6274 in Ballwin on Aug. 11 when West County resident Oliver Siebert, 88, received the Napoleon Bonaparte Legion of Honor Medal from France in recognition of his efforts while serving there during World War II.
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy approved the award, which was presented by Jim Mauze Jr., honorary consul representing the French government in Missouri.
Siebert’s role in the campaign to liberate Strasbourg, a French city across the Rhine River from Germany, and other details of his military service were reviewed during the ceremony. Under a proclamation signed by St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, the date was declared Oliver W. Siebert Day in St. Louis County.
In 1944, Siebert was a temporary second lieutenant with the Army’s 324th Infantry Battalion of the 44th Infantry Division in France. He was serving also as liaison with a French artillery battalion working with American and British units assigned to move through the Vosges Mountains in Eastern France and liberate Strasbourg.
His French liaison counterpart was Jean Penet, a young captain with whom he worked closely as the combined force headed toward Strasbourg. Moving through the Vosges was risky because the narrow mountain passes made it possible for a small enemy force to block a much larger opposing army, but the mission was successful and marked the first time in recorded history any army had accomplished the feat, Siebert said.
Once at the city’s outskirts, the American-British-French forces liberated Strasbourg in less than two days.
The German army was not ready to yield, and as the combined forces at Strasbourg moved to join other units to the north, English-speaking German soldiers donned U.S. military police uniforms and manned an intersection along the Allied route. Siebert was among the officers the MP impersonators directed into the hands of waiting German SS officers.
Interrogated over a three-day period, Siebert thought he would be executed once the Germans concluded they had all the information he could give.
Declining to go into detail, Siebert said, “I simply did what I had been trained to do in those circumstances.”
He was able to disarm two SS officers and escape in their command car.
On Christmas Day 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, Siebert was stationed several hundred yards in front of his 324th Infantry’s positions when an enemy shell exploded nearby, seriously wounding his right leg. During the subsequent trip to the hospital, a German plane strafed the convoy of ambulances in which Siebert was riding, and he suffered injuries to the same leg, which required extensive surgery. In May 1945, he departed France for America on a hospital ship. Wounds left his right leg more than an inch shorter than his left, and doctors recommended a medical discharge.
Back home, Siebert earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Washington University and did graduate work in metallurgical and chemical engineering. In 1948, he married Virginia Turner, whom he met in high school.
His career included service as an assistant chief metallurgist at Carondelet Foundry; engineering positions at the Sverdrup and Parcel and Monsanto; and faculty member at Washington University. In 1985, he formed Siebert Materials Engineering.
Commenting on the Legion of Honor award, Siebert said, “The honor certainly isn’t all mine. It’s for what Jean (Penet) and I did together. We worked closely and trusted each other.”
Military veterans often find it difficult to deal with memories of their wartime experiences, but Siebert has found a strategy that works for him.
“You just file those memories somewhere back here,” he said, pointing to the back of his head, “and then you don’t go there again.”