Karen Swensen / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS -- At 91, Eugene Lussan is about to do something he's never done before.
“This is my first time i'm ever publicly saying anything about the war.”
Blessed or cursed with nearly total recall, the World War II veteran shares his story -- a wartime oddysey of mythic proportion that started straight out of the movies.
“Guess where we landed?” he said. “Casablanca.”
His opening act was set in the north African theatre of war. Against the backdrop of the dunes of the Sahara Desert, Lussan's unit faced one of the most notorious Nazi generals.
“We were fighting Rommel!” he said.
And that was just the beginning. The Army medic was transferred to a tank battalion and moved from Africa to Europe, storming the beaches of southern Italy on a Higgins boat.
“And that’s where it all began.”
For the next two years, Lussan would battle in tanks and trenches, ultimately joining the infantry.
“Those were our foxhole days,” Lussan said. “All of a sudden in my sleep you'd hear vroom, vroom, vroom, vroom, vvroo, and we called him bedcheck charlie.”
He remembers the air assaults and hidden mines.
“His face was half blown away. I could see his teeth sticking out.”
He saw the white crosses of death and the face of courage. He looked it straight in the eye when General George S. Patton addressed his unit.
“He got up on this tank, and we were all sitting around and I'm looking right at him, and you know the words out of his mouth?” Lussan said. “Just like this, ‘Killers! Killers! That's what you are, killers.’ He says we're going to battle and some of you aren't coming back!”
Lussan remembers every detail, every brush with greatness -- from Patton to de Gaulle. “He was in his jeep and we'd pulled to the side of the road, and here he comes past us, a magnificent looking man.”
And every brush with death. One in particular involved a mortar attack on a nearby French convoy.
“Oh yeah, it was bad, it was bad,” Lussan said. “There were a lot of them killed.”
It was so bad, Lussan was sent to help the survivors as a battlefield medic detached to the French Expeditionary Force under de Gaulle himself.
Lussan saved several members of the general's staff. For that, records show he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre, one of the most prestigious military medals.
Only he never received it, because he didn't stick around long enough. Lussan's account of some of the turning points of the war are probably unlike any you've heard before, and they are documented here at the National World War II Museum.
“I saw it with my own eyes and I'll never forget it.”
After fighting for 58 days and nights in the same clothes in the same valley outside Cassino, Italy, Lussan saw the U.S. take control of the skies.
“I heard a lot, a lot of noise. I mean a lot of noise. And all of a sudden I saw about 3000 aircraft, United States aircraft,” Lussan said.
That, he said, was the beginning of the end for the Nazis in Italy. Lussan's unit captured city after city after that.
And in Genoa, he single handedly helped capture thousands of Germans with a single button. He was fooling around with a phone in an Italian villa.
“I started banging on it like this, and I said, ‘Hello? Hello? Hello?’ Nothing. ‘Hello?’” Lussan said. “First thing you know someone said hello. I said hello, who's this? and he said, who are you? I said, who are you? He said he's a German, a commandant of a German unit, and I said what do you want. He said I want to talk to your commanding officer.”
Lussan handed over the phone, and in turn 5000 Germans who wanted to surrender.
“It's true!” Lussan said. “You couldn't make up a story like that.”
At the end of the war, Lussan's 23 months of continual battlefield service had earned him all sorts of honors, like the Croix de Guerre, but again, he didn't stick around to receive that one, because it also earned him a spot on the first plane home, where his wife he hadn't seen in years and the son he'd never met were waiting.
“I was out, gone. Bing, bing, bing, gone, I was out.”
Now, Sen. David Vitter and Rep. Steve Scalise are trying to help Lussan get the French medal that he says he wants only to pass down to his granddaughter.
“That's why I'm doing this, because I don't care about notoriety or nothing about that.”
He says he has all he needs -- the last bullet from his M1 Garand rifle and the combat infantry badge that ended our interview.
This is his trophy, he says, the one he earned in a fight to the death. The one scene he couldn't set for us, and didn't have to. Surely it was hell.
“What can you do? It's you or him or them. It's what it is, and i don't want to think about it,” he said. “You never get over it.”