By Amy Wenk
As a soldier in World War II, Sandy Springs resident Oliver Littlejohn stumbled upon a German cave filled with stolen artwork from the Louvre Museum. That day, he wore what he surmised was the crown of Charlemagne.
Now 65 years later, Littlejohn is about to wear France’s highest honor, the National Order of the Legion of Honor. The Consul General of France in Atlanta, Pascal Le Deunff, will knight Littlejohn and three other veterans Sept. 1 at the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins.
“We are very grateful to have him Sept. 1 and to honor him properly,” said Claire Collobert, spokeswomen for the consulate.
Napoleon Bonaparte founded the National Order of the Legion of Honor in 1802. About 1,000 American WWII veterans have received the honor since 2004, Collobert said.
Littlejohn is receiving the designation for his role in liberating the French town of Wolfgantzen from German occupation in 1945.
A native of Cowpens, S.C., Littlejohn and his brother abandoned their jobs as shipbuilders in Charleston and voluntarily joined the U.S. Army. “I was never classified and no way were they going to draft me,” said Littlejohn, who was 18 when he enrolled.
Littlejohn comes from a family of veterans. His father lost his right arm and earned a Silver Star during World War I. His grandfather, just 15 at the time, was a drummer who marched with Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and the Union troops during the Civil War. Littlejohn’s great grandfather was a Confederate soldier and his great, great grandfather fought in the War of 1812.
After he joined the military, in April 1943, Littlejohn was assigned to a rifle company. “We had been called the diaper division,” Littlejohn said, because the average age of the soldiers was 20 years old. “A nurse said, ‘These kids aren’t even out of diapers.’”
Those “kids” entered combat during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 in Belgium.
“We were thrown into combat with no winter equipment,” Littlejohn said.
The troops lived in fox holes and used white sheets as cover in the snowy banks of Belgium. Many men suffered frozen feet and, in one battle, Littlejohn said the rifles were too cold to fire.
The division succeeded in taking back several towns before being sent to chase Germans from the northeast corner of France in January 1945. “The Germans were so anxious to keep” the town of Wolfgantzen, France, Littlejohn said. “ But come hell or high water, we were to take it.”
And they did with a careful strategy. The afternoon of Feb. 5, 1945, Company “C” laid a smoke screen across the open field to the north of the town.
Their plan was to attack the Germans under the cover of the smoke but when the wind shifted and the smoke lifted “we were sitting ducks,” Littlejohn said. “There was nowhere to hide.”
The Germans opened fire with machine guns and rifles. A front-line lieutenant was shot in the foot and the medic was killed with a shot to the face.
“I don’t get angry very easy,” Littlejohn said. But when a shot fired at his head splintered his helmet and ripped open his right shoulder, Littlejohn got angry. “I threw off my combat pack. I had an M1 rifle. I said, ‘Come on guys.’”
Littlejohn assumed command of the First Platoon and ordered the platoon to follow. The troops took the town. Littlejohn was later awarded with a Bronze Star for his role in the fight.
After the battle in France, Littlejohn continued to fight in Holland and Germany. He was discharged, after a tour of Europe, on Jan. 1, 1946.
He went back to school for chemistry and pharmacology and earned his doctorate.
He spent 27 years as dean of Mercer University College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. He helped to integrate the school by recruiting African-American students. “We had a heck of a time integrating the university,” Littlejohn said. The school’s administration was OK with the idea “but we didn’t have any black students.”
Littlejohn recruited students from Clark Atlanta University. One of those students, Ted Matthews, today is dean of the Mercer University College of Pharmacy and
Littlejohn retired at 62 but still lectures each Thursday at Mercer.
He and his wife of 63 years, Beverly, have two adult children and two grandkids.