U.S. veterans presented with Orange Lanyard, highest Dutch military award

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Gene Metcalfe, a World War II veteran and former POW, wears his Orange Lanyard after being awarded the Military Order of William, in Groesbeek, the Netherlands Sept. 18, 2019. This event is just one of the many events commemorating the largest airborne operation in history, Operation Market Garden, which was aimed at liberating the Netherlands and gaining a foothold into Nazi Germany by crossing the Maas, Waal, and ultimately the Rhine River. To this day, generations of Dutch remember the bravery and sacrifice of more than 41,600 troops from the U.S., UK and Poland who together constituted the Allied Airborne Army. Commemorations honoring the Allied soldiers who participated in the historic airborne operation which liberated several Dutch towns take place Sept. 14-22, 2019. (Army photograph by Spec. Ethan Valetski)
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Nine silhouettes bloomed out from the rear of an aircraft and drifted toward the soil of a small field outside the town of Groesbeek, Netherlands.

The descending figures belonged to the 11th Air Mobile Brigade of the Dutch Army and carried something special to be presented in honor of two men who had made the same descent 75 years ago.

The Netherlands’ highest military award, the Orange Lanyard of the Military Order of William, was presented to U.S. Army World War II veterans Gene Metcalfe and Robert C. Blankenship, whose son, Richard Blankenship, accepted the award on behalf of his father on Sept. 18, 2019.

Both men were assigned to the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and had participated in Operation Market Garden, dropping into the region on September 17, 1944, which led to the liberation of Dutch cities from Nazi Germany forces.

Gene Metcalfe (left) and Richard Blankenship (right) sit as guests of honor before receiving the Military Order of William Orange Lanyard, the Netherlands highest award, September 18, 2019. Richard Blankenship accepted the award on behalf of his father, Robert C. Blankenship, who passed away in 1970. The men earned the award based on their actions and participation in Operation Market Garden and the liberation of the Netherlands from Nazi Germany forces. This year marks the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden and commemorates the largest airborne operation in history which was aimed at liberating the Netherlands and gaining a foothold into Nazi Germany by crossing the Maas, Waal, and ultimately the Rhine River. To this day, generations of Dutch remember the bravery and sacrifice of more than 41,600 troops from the US, UK, and Poland who together constituted the Allied Airborne Army. (Army photograph by Staff Sgt. Christopher Jelle)

“It is a lot more pleasurable than it was 75 years ago,” Metcalfe said about returning to the area. “The Dutch people are just so grateful. It’s just like coming home.”

Ten hours after landing, the 22-year-old paratrooper was involved in a firefight with a German tank division, where he was wounded by an enemy artillery round. Left for dead, he was eventually discovered by German troops and taken as a prisoner of war.

“This is beyond anything I could have imagined. Seventy-five years ago, they don’t even know you’re alive,” he joked, “and now everyone wants to get to know you and show their appreciation.”

Robert Blankenship was a first lieutenant and platoon commander of Company I, 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, an airborne unit that descended with gliders during Operation Market Garden.

On Sept. 20, 1944, Blankenship crossed the Waal River in the first boat of an assault wave during a daring daylight operation designed to establish a bridgehead and gain ground into enemy territory.

Dutch re-enactors, dressed as Soldiers of 82nd Airborne Division during World War II, parachute out of a Douglas C-47 Skytrain to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden and begin the ceremony to present the Military Order of William to WWII veterans in Groesbeek, the Netherlands, Sept. 18th, 2019. (Army photograph by Spec. Ethan Valetski)

According to an award citation, the events that followed were harrowing. As the next set of boats was preparing to land, an enemy machine gun opened fire from their left flank, wounding several men and pinning down the larger landing. Blankenship moved across 100-yards of open terrain by crawling and moving by leaps and bounds until he was within 50-yards of the machine gun. He fired upon the four-man crew with his rifle, killing them. Blankenship became aware of a concealed enemy sniper five yards from his position. The sniper was firing on Blankenship’s scout. With no time to reload his then empty rifle, Blankenship tackled the German and knocked him out with his fists. He then led two of his men within 15 yards of a flak-wagon and neutralized it with hand grenades.

Blankenship was awarded the Silver Star in December 1944. He died of a heart attack in 1970.

“We really didn’t know much about his story as kids growing up,” said his son Richard. “He never talked about his time in the war, not until the final few years before he passed.”

The Orange Lanyard award was pinned onto Metcalfe’s coat, and Richard Blankenship was given the award in a small display case.

“I was very honored to present the Orange Lanyard to Mr. Metcalfe and a relative of Mr. Blankenship,” said Dutch Army Col. Timo Beaufort, deputy commander of 11th Air Mobile Brigade, who presented both awards. “It’s a dream for every modern time soldier to commemorate the veterans, especially the ones who liberated the Netherlands.”

Soldiers of 82nd Airborne Division parachute out of a C-130 Hercules to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden and begin the ceremony to present the Military Order of William to WWII veterans in Groesbeek, Netherlands, Sept. 18th, 2019. (Army photograph by Spec. Ethan Valetski)

In order to wear the Orange Lanyard, the unit must first be accepted into the Military Order of William, a chivalric order established in 1815. Afterward, individuals who were a part of that unit during the time of acceptance may wear the brightly colored orange cord on their left shoulder.

The 82nd Airborne Division was awarded the Order of William on Oct. 8, 1945.

Gene Metcalfe’s full story can be found in the book “Left for Dead at Nijmegen,” written by Marcus A. Nannini.
 

Soldiers of 82nd Airborne Division land after parachuting out of a C-130 Hercules to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden, and begin the ceremony to present the Military Order of William to WWII veterans in Groesbeek, the Netherlands, Sept. 18th, 2019. (Army photograph by Spec. Ethan Valetski)

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