Ninety-three-year-old World War II veteran and former Wilton resident Peter H. Kaskell was awarded one of France’s highest medals, the Croix de Chevalier dans l’Ordre de la Légion d’Honneur, during an outdoor ceremony in New York City on July 1.

The medal, also known as the Legion of Honor, is bestowed on eligible United States veterans of WWII who contributed significantly to the liberation of France from 1944 to 1945. Wilton residents Trygve Hansen and the late Charles M. Baffo received the Legion of Honor in 2015.

When Kaskell learned he would be receiving the honor for army intelligence work he did during the war, he said it was a “very happy” time for him and his wife, who recently moved to Meadow Ridge in West Redding after about 40 years in Wilton.

Kaskell was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1924. With the rise of Adolf Hitler, Kaskell’s parents sent him and his sister to England to attend school. Not long after, the entire family moved to the United States and settled in New York.

Kaskell graduated high school and went to Columbia University, but wasn’t able to finish his studies because he was soon drafted into World War II. At the age of 19, Kaskell enlisted in the U.S. Army in April 1943, and underwent 14 weeks of training to become a combat engineer.

However, the Army was “looking for people to be trained to interrogate German prisoners,” said Kaskell, and learned he was German-born and thought he would be a good fit. Kaskell was then sent to Camp Ritchie in Maryland, where he was trained to interrogate prisoners and become an “expert” on the order of battle —  defined as “the planned sequence in which military units arrive and are deployed on a battlefield.”

With that training, Kaskell became a technical sergeant. After about six months at Camp Ritchie, Kaskell said, he was shipped off to southern Italy and assigned to the 36th Infantry Division.

“At that time, the war was going strong,” he said, and in Italy, “the American Army was heading northward and the German Army was heading southward — determined to throw us out.”

As technical sergeant, Kaskell said, he had a “very important function” — obtaining “information about the enemy” and informing the U.S. Army.

Nearly every day, he said, “there was an endless flow of reports from soldiers, officers and others informing us of useful information about the Germans and their intentions.”

Italy


In January 1944, the 36th Division led the main assault in the battle of Monte Cassino, but was pulled from the siege to the Anzio beachhead after losing more than 2,000 men.

Kaskell obtained and analyzed intelligence from a captured German messenger, which allowed 36th-Division troops to lead a breakout from the Anzio beachhead through a gap in the Germans’ last line of defense in Italy before Rome during the Italian Campaign — earning him the Bronze Star, as well as a battlefield commission.

The troops climbed the slopes of Monte Artemiso and captured Velletri on June 1, opening the road to Rome.

The 36th Division was then pulled out of Italy and landed on the beaches of southern France two months later.

France


It was Kaskell’s work with U.S. forces on French soil that earned him the Legion d'Honneur.

“His service in France and Germany was with the G-2 (intelligence) Section of the U.S. 6th Army Group — a massive force, a portion of which was the French First Army,” said Kaskell’s longtime close friend, Stephen Hudspeth.

“Allied troops in the north went into France and landed on the northern shores and made their way south,” said Kaskell. His division “steadily” moved northward from southern France, he said, while English allies moved southward.

Kaskell said the German troops were well-equipped, well-trained and “clearly the best soldiers.”

“The Germans overran the French troops and really gave them hell,” he said, and the French civilians were “desperate” because there were “relatively few French troops.”

“The English troops who came to cross the northern shore of France from the south shore of England were shoved — figuratively speaking — into the shore [by the Germans],” said Kaskell.

“I remember how scared we all were. The Germans seemed unbeatable and we seemed to be ‘unlivable,’ so to speak.”

According to the Center of Military History, the 36th Infantry Division made an assault landing in the Saint Raphael/Frejus area of France on Aug. 1, 1944, advanced to the Moselle River at Remiremont and foothills of the Vosges, crossed the Meurthe River, breached the Sainte Marie Pass and “burst into the Alsatian Plains.”

Met with a counterattack on Dec. 13, the 36th Division held in the Colmar Pocket and resumed attack on Dec. 20. The division then advanced north along the Rhine River to Mannheim in southwestern Germany and met heavy resistance at Haguenau, Oberhofen and Wissembourg.

On April 22, 1945, the division moved to the Danube River and attacked the Germans’ “National Redoubt” at Kunzelsau in south-central Germany on April 30.

On May 8, 1945, Germany surrendered and the war was over.

Hudspeth said Kaskell was in line to receive the French Croix de Guerre from the French First Army at the end of the war, “but that didn’t happen in part because he had just received the very distinguished U.S. Bronze Star.”

In 1945, Kaskell was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his army intelligence work during the war.

According to a letter from Gen. Jacob L. Devers, Kaskell received the medal for employing his “natural ability” and acquiring technical knowledge of the German Army “to produce intelligence of superior quality.”

In “critical periods when information on the enemy was scarce,” according to the letter, Kaskell “worked with the utmost diligence and understanding of the importance of his task to produce valuable data required for the successful conduct of operations in the field.”

“In a sense,” Hudspeth said, this appointment to the Legion d'Honneur makes up — and then some — for that missing Croix de Guerre.”

After the war


After the war, Kaskell returned to Columbia University and became a lawyer.

He spent 27 years working with the Olin Corporation in Stamford — 12 of those as vice president and general counsel, and moved to Wilton in 1970.

Kaskell left Olin in 1983 and co-founded the International Institute for Conflict Prevention & Resolution, formerly known as the Center for Public Resources.