In a modest home on a quiet street in Avon there lives a genuine war hero.
Humble and unassuming, retired Col. Morton Katz ushers a visitor into his basement office, overflowing with plaques, letters of commendation, medals and photos—all commemorating his service in the U.S. Army during World War II.
And at age 92, he recently was recognized with another honor: he has been appointed a “chevalier” of the Legion of Honor by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The award “underlines the deep appreciation and gratitude of the French people” for his contribution to the “liberation of our country during World War II,” said Philippe Lalliot, consul general of France in New York. “We will never forget the commitment of American heroes like you to whom France owes so much,” added Laillot.
“This award testifies to President Sarkozy’s high esteem for your merits and accomplishments,” Francois Delattre, French ambassador to America, wrote in a recent letter to Katz.
Katz, his wife Shirley, daughters Rachel and Naomi, their spouses and his three granddaughters will attend a ceremony feting the retired colonel at the French consulate in New York City on May 3.
Proud member of 82nd Airborne
Born in Hartford on May 15, 1919, Katz was commissioned in the U.S. Army through its reserve program in 1940. He completed infantry training and then moved on to become a member of the parachute infantry. Initially, he was deployed to England with the 503rd parachute infantry to prepare for the invasion of North Africa. But he ended up in Italy, where, in October 1943 his unit engaged in combat in Naples.
He was then attached to the 82nd Airborne Division, and was in the first boat that headed into the waters in the bloody invasion of Anzio in Naples. Next, he was dispatched to France, where he fought in the mountains in a battalion that liberated southern France in August 1944.
On Dec. 16, 1944, Katz fought in what many historians believe to have been a decisive battle – the Battle of the Bulge. In this bloody confrontation, many units on all sides of the war were completely wiped out. He fortunately escaped without any injuries and was next assigned to an intelligence section in Germany, where he recalls “chasing the Germans across Germany.” After the Germans surrendered, the 82nd Airborne Division liberated the Wobbelin concentration camp, a starvation camp outside of Ludwigslust, Germany.
Katz recalls these events with no hesitation. Despite his advanced age, he has an amazing command of facts, dates, names and places. He tells story after story, including some of the “fun stunts” he pulled with his army buddies. But, he is quick to add, “you don’t want to remember some things.” He is referring to what he saw at that concentration camp. He does not want to talk about that.
In an oral history interview videotaped for the Veterans History Project Digital Archive, a project of Central Connecticut State University Center for Public Policy and Social Research, Katz reflects upon his “Band of Brothers.” He has stayed in touch with many of his army buddies, including at many reunions of the 82nd Airborne Division Association. For 28 years, he served as a national judge advocate for that association.
“My most vivid memory is of the guys with whom I served,” he says on the videotape. “They watched your back. You are as close to these guys as you are to anyone on the face of the earth.”
As for war, Katz said: “It made me believe the best thing you could do with your life is to work for peace.”
Katz has been awarded the Bronze Star Medal with the Oakleaf Cluster, Legion of Merit, EAME Theater Medal with nine battle stars and invasion arrowhead, Medal of Merit, Victory Medal, medal for Army Occupation of Germany, Combat Infantryman Badge, Medal of Liberated France and now the Legion of Honor.
He stayed in the reserve program and worked at several summer training programs at the Pentagon. He went to University of Connecticut Law School on the G.I.Bill and, after graduating, accepted a position with the Civil Affairs Unit, where he stayed for 17 years and eventually was promoted to the rank of colonel.
In 1951, Katz began a career in law in the Greater Hartford area. Since 1991, he has been a . In addition, he is a superior court magistrate in several Connecticut judicial districts. The spry colonel still walks two miles a day, despite an arthritic hip, and remains an active practicing lawyer, often representing people involved in unemployment cases.
Tall and elegant in a blue cotton monogrammed shirt and wearing a prized possession – an 82nd Airborne Division insignia belt buckle – Katz proudly displays the awards he has earned for his work as an attorney. He was the recipient of the Hartford Bar’s 2010 Pro Bono Award, cited for his unselfish service to pro bono clients and for his ongoing work with the Statewide Legal Services.
Katz has been “instrumental in delivering justice for our clients, instrumental in developing family legal clinics and mentoring attorneys — he is so many things,” said Atty. Janice Chiaretto, when presenting Katz with the award. “A solo practitioner without the full weight and resources of a big firm, he has used his own skills, his own heart and his own bravery to achieve all that he has achieved for his clients.”
The named his law practice the Small Business of the Year in 2009 and he has been a special public defender since 1997. He also serves on the state Public Transportation Commission and is an active Mason.
“When someone helps you in life," Katz said, "it is your turn to help someone else.”