Ernest Marvel has a case full of medals in his Frankford home.
He was awarded his most recent addition, the French Legion of Honor, in July — almost 80 years after he helped liberate the country from the Germans in World War II.
Marvel, now 98, has rarely left the Bethany Beach area, save for the war.
“I’m a home boy,” he said.
He speaks fondly of his family. His garden is his pride and joy. He likes to dance and sing karaoke on the weekends at the local VFW and Eagles Club.
But Marvel also holds dark memories of a different time, when heroes had to fight through Europe to free thousands held in concentration camps under Adolf Hitler’s control.
He was one of those heroes.
In 1945, Marvel made his way through French and German villages, across the Rhine River and to the gates of Dachau.
Marvel’s war story
Pfc. Marvel entered the war late, just after the Battle of the Bulge, according to historian Eric Montgomery. A member of U.S. Army Company B, 179th Infantry Regiment, 1st Battalion, 45th Infantry Division, the 20-year-old made his way to Europe aboard the Queen Elizabeth troopship.
One of Marvel’s first missions, according to Montgomery, was to crawl “across an enemy-held field (strewn) with mines and booby traps.”
“We had to climb from foxhole to foxhole to get to our headquarters to let them know where we were,” Marvel said. “Each foxhole had two Germans in it, but they were kids. They were maybe 15 or 16 years old, and they were scared to death.”
His division crossed the Rhine River in storm boats as the Germans fired mortars at them.
“About three boats down from me there was a mortar shell landing, and it blew it apart,” Marvel said. “We were about halfway across. It could’ve been us.”
From there, the soldiers moved into Germany, taking village after village, often house by house.
“I was a bazooka man for a good while, and I would knock out the wheels of a tank so they couldn’t move. I’d shoot a phosphorus grenade into the turret, and it’d get so hot, they’d have to come out. Some would come out fighting, some with their hands up,” Marvel said.
He bombed German soldiers shooting from perches in church steeples, as well.
“I could hear ‘em for ages, screaming as it blew ’em out,” Marvel said.
He became reflective as he spoke.
“It’s not a good feeling,” he said. “I’m doing better.”
Marvel said he has post-traumatic stress disorder. After the war, he’d wake his wife up in the night as he experienced flashbacks. Ultimately, he got help from a psychiatrist.
“He said my trouble was it was all bottled up in me; I wouldn’t let it out. He said, ‘You start letting it out and you’ll feel better.’ And I did. I started telling different people about different things and it started coming around, but it’s still never left my mind,” he said.
Liberating Dachau concentration camp
Part of the trauma he experienced was during the liberation of Dachau concentration camp. Marvel’s memories are vivid of the horrific place where thousands of people were killed.
“There was about a half a mile of concrete road, and they had a big German barrack made out of brick on each side of the road. In between was a white-bark tree,” he said.
Marvel and his fellow soldiers moved through the buildings and killed or took prisoner the German soldiers inside.
Elsewhere on the grounds, he opened up a boxcar, only to find it and several others like it full of bodies.
“The smell was terrible. They had … big incinerators that they were burning them with and they couldn’t burn them as fast as they were dying,” he said.
That day, U.S. soldiers found more than 30 railroad cars filled with bodies brought to Dachau, all in an advanced state of decomposition, according to the U.S. National Holocaust Memorial Museum.
He was shocked by the condition of the prisoners still alive inside the camp, who were starving and wracked with diseases.
“You’ve seen ‘The Walking Dead’?” Marvel asked of the zombie apocalypse TV series. “They looked worse than that. They were dying of malnutrition. They were nothing but skin and bones, and their eyes sunk right into their heads.”
Soldiers “tossed candy bars and cigarettes over the barbed wire to the starving prisoners until ordered to stop,” according to the July 2022 National WWII Museum article, “The Last Days of the Dachau Concentration Camp,” but most of them stayed out of the main compound for “fear of disease.”
“Medical staff came, regulated the supply of food and water to those beset with malnutrition and created a typhus ward to respond to the epidemic of that dreaded disease in the camp,” the article states.
U.S. forces liberated 32,000 prisoners at Dachau, according to the Holocaust Memorial Museum.
A connection to the present
The only injury Marvel said he suffered during the war was from being hit by shrapnel on his arm. He still has a scar.
“Our general … he wanted us to take this village. He said they had been flying over and reconnaissance planes saw no activity,” he said. “We got out halfway into the field. It was breaking day, and they started shooting at us. ... And the shrapnel was flying everywhere.”
Marvel was one of eight of 28 men to survive the attack, he said.
One of the soldiers who did not survive was Orla Moninger, a man Marvel had become close friends with since arriving in Europe, he said. When they returned to retrieve the bodies the next day, Moninger’s hand was over his heart, holding photos of his family, Marvel said.
Marvel’s grandson, Donnie Carey, knew of Moninger from stories shared by his grandfather. He began wondering if the fallen soldier had any family still alive. The historian he’d been working with, Montgomery, found Moninger did indeed have a living son, and Carey gave him a call.
“He said he heard (his father) was getting off a train in Germany and was shot,” Carey said, recalling the conversation with Moninger’s son. “The hair just stood up on my arm because I knew I had some information he had never heard. … It was right before holidays and he was like, ‘I have a story I can tell now.’ It was a great moment.”
A grandson, a country music singer and the Legion of Honor
Carey said he became interested in learning more about his grandfather’s time in the war about six years ago. That was when his wife read “The Diary of Anne Frank,” the well-known writings of a young Jewish girl who spent two years hiding from Nazis with her family and ultimately died in a concentration camp.
“She said, ‘You know, your grandfather experienced a lot of this stuff at Dachau,’ and I just realized how honored I was to still have the opportunity to help him and learn from him,” Carey said. “He’s my hero.”
Carey and the rest of Marvel’s extended family surprised him last summer when they took him to see country music singer Jamey Johnson at the Freeman Arts Pavilion in Selbyville. Johnson gave Marvel a shoutout before singing “In Color,” a song about a veteran.
The family made their way to the front of the stage and Johnson said, “Thank you for your sacrifice, sir.” He then came down and gave Marvel a handshake, a hug and some guitar pics.
Video of the moment was posted online, and one of those who viewed it reached out to let Carey know Marvel qualified for the Legion of Honor, France’s highest decoration.
“I’m just trying to do everything I can to help him be recognized while he’s still here,” Carey said.
Marvel turned 98 in May.
This summer, he contracted pneumonia on top of COVID-19, but recovered in time for the Legion of Honor ceremony in Washington, D.C. It was held the day before Bastille Day, (July 14) France’s most notable patriotic holiday. Marvel and two other American World War II vets were presented the award by French Ambassador Phillipe Etienne.
The award was created in 1802 “to recognize outstanding services rendered to France by military and civilian personnel,” Etienne said.
An average of 2,200 French citizens and 300 foreigners are decorated each year, according to the Legion of Honor website.