YANCEYVILLE, N.C. — It’s been more than seven decades since a very young Julian “Neal” Watlington, of Yanceyville, North Carolina, landed in France, a member of a U.S. Army heavy weapons battalion fighting Adolph Hitler’s invasion of Europe.
“We landed at Omaha Beach in 1944 and walked in water for about a half-mile,” Watlington remembers. “Then we fought in Saint-Lo.”
The fighting didn’t stop there, and by the time Watlington returned home the following year he had seen battle in France, German and Belgium, including at the Battle of the Bulge — considered the largest and bloodiest battle of World War II.
Watlington was wounded twice and was awarded a Purple Heart.
His son, Stuart Watlington, remembers asking his father why he only had one Purple Heart when he was wounded twice.
“He never filled out the paperwork,” Stuart said. “He said, ‘What do I need two for?’”
On June 15, Watlington and family members traveled to the Levine Museum of the New South, in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the French Consul General Denis Barbet presented Watlington — and 11 other North Carolinians — with the French Legion of Honor medal in appreciation for their service during World War II.
Watlington was a machine gunner and transported supplies, mail and the wounded back and forth from the front.
“Twenty years ago I offered to take him back to France,” Stuart said — a question that astonished his father. “He said, ‘I was so glad to get home … why would I want to go back?’”
Watlington doesn’t like to talk about the time he spent in the Army, preferring to talk about what he did when he returned home.
He returned to his wife, Katherine, his job at the Caswell Knitting Mills — and baseball, a career interrupted by the war.
For about 12 years, Watlington worked his way up through the minor leagues, playing in Danville for the Giant Leaf team at the stadium that used to be in what is now Ballou Park Shopping Center.
Watlington was named most valuable player by two minor league teams and ultimately reach the Major Leagues, playing a year with the Philadelphia Athletics.
“He played in Yankee Stadium, against Mickey Mantle, in 1953,” Stuart said, laughing as he added that his father referred to his brief stint in the majors as “I had a cup of coffee in the big leagues.”
In 1958, he retired from baseball and returned to Yanceyville, operating “Watlington’s on the Square” department store until 2000.
“We had women’s and men’s clothes on one side, hardware and farm supplies on the other,” Katherine said.
Watlington was surprised to learn he was going to be presented with the French Legion of Honor medal — making him a “Chevalier of the French Legion,” the equivalent of being knighted in that county — and is just as uncomfortable talking about it as he is about talking about the war itself.
But his family is pleased.
“I have a new respect for France, for giving these men and women this recognition,” Stuart said.