WALNUT CREEK -- Dan Franklin was 16 when he joined the Navy in 1942. He was 17 on D-Day, his landing craft charged with delivering soldiers and ammo to bloody Omaha Beach.
"It's a short beach," said Franklin, 86, a Rossmoor resident. "The Germans were shooting down. We got the munitions off the boat, but the 12 guys were just mowed down. How we escaped, God only knows."
Before the morning was over, that ship was shot out from under Franklin and his four crewmates. Another landing craft picked them up. It hit a mine, killing eight of the 10 men aboard. Franklin was blasted out of the boat and onto a temporary dock. He spent the night sleeping on a third landing anchored to Allied flotilla boats that had been intentionally sunk to create an artificial breakwater.
"And that's where I start drawing blanks," he said.
On Monday, in a presentation at San Francisco National Cemetery at the Presidio, Franklin will receive the French Legion of Honor medal, created in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte and considered France's highest honor -- one that has been awarded to many surviving American veterans for their heroism on D-Day.
"I don't even know what term to use," Franklin said. "Rewarding. Satisfaction, to a certain extent, mainly because it was going on for so many years."
It was nine years ago that Franklin learned he was eligible for the medal. He applied, but said he never got a reply.
He let the matter drop until a chance encounter 17 months ago. Stopping at Buttercup Grill for dinner, Franklin, wearing a cap that identified him as a World War II veteran, was seated next to a group including Frank Walden, a Walnut Creek Navy veteran who had just received the Legion of Honor.
"It was just luck," recalled Barbara Walden, Frank's wife. "It was just uncanny. Dan said, 'What's going on here?' "
The two old vets got to talking, and Walden introduced Franklin to his friend Mike Kluever, who had helped shepherd Walden through the application process for his medal.
"Frank and his friend said, 'What can we do to help?' " Franklin said. "That started the ball rolling."
Next Franklin contacted Michael Hoffschenider, veterans service representative for Contra Costa County, for help obtaining service records that would prove he had participated in the D-Day invasion. More good luck -- Navy records had survived a 1973 fire at the National Archives in St. Louis that incinerated most Army and Army Air Corps documents from before 1960.
"World War II records are very skimpy," Hoffschenider said. "In a situation like that, you just don't know what's going to be out there. You just hope."
Franklin received his entire folder, including his enlistment papers (his father signed, attesting his son was of legal age even though he wasn't) and a commendation, dated Feb. 10, 1945, citing him for "meritorious performance of duty" on D-Day.
He eventually was notified that he had been awarded the Legion of Honor.
"He was saying, 'Oh, they won't call me,' " Barbara Walden recalled from the chance meeting at Buttercup Grill. "But they did." She added that her husband and Kluever "feel really pleased that they were able to have somebody else get one."
Franklin, who will be accompanied by his wife, Marilyn and several children and grandchildren at Monday's ceremony, said he didn't feel especially meritorious at the time.
"I felt like a survivor," he said. "Especially after that (second) boat blew up. Stuff that I saw there -- a guy I knew, don't ask me why or how, in a circle of men, they all got mowed down, and he's standing there without a scratch. Which gave you kind of a feeling that if it's meant to be, it's meant to be."
Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him at Twitter.com/garyscribe.