Frank Denius: the Knight in Burnt-Orange Armor

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“Here in Texas, Frank is known as a war hero,” says Texas Gov. Rick Perry, addressing a crowd of over one hundred in the shadow of Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. It is the Friday before Memorial Day, and that shadow doesn’t seem to stretch far enough. The sun beats down on the mass of service members and Texas alumni in big hats, burnt orange shirts, and neckties until the only ones left standing straight are the three soldiers of the Color Guard. All are assembled to honor Frank Denius (LLB ’49, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus).

“He is also known as a philanthropist,” Perry continues. “He is known as a noted lawyer, a businessman, and I might add one of the biggest UT fans that I know. We can now add another title to Frank’s long and distinguished list of titles and that is ‘Chevalier.’ Chevalier, of course, translates to the word ‘knight.” Perry pauses and spells the word out for the crowd, just to eliminate any confusion. There wasn’t any. He turns his head and smiling down at the man beside him says, “So, we’ll see what we can do about finding you some armor in the appropriate burnt-orange color.”

He deserves it. Frank Denius’ place at the heart of Longhorn Nation is unquestioned. He has been called “the ultimate booster,” a man who has been to so many football practices that the field is named after him. Now, Denius is being awarded “Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur” —Knight of the Legion of Honour— for his service in World War II. Designation to the Legion is the highest decoration any individual can receive from the country, French or otherwise. The French Consul General, Frederic Bontems, describes the characteristics of a Chevalier: “virtue, bravery, and strong commitment to liberation.” In battle after battle, Frank Denius and the men of his division, the 30th Division, proved that.

The 30th Division was a National Guard Division from Tennessee, Georgia, the Carolinas, and the north of Florida. It spearheaded the major battles of the war from Belgium to Holland to France, even entering Germany alongside General Patton’s men. After the war had been won and the efforts of the troops evaluated, General Eisenhower’s commission ranked the 30th Division first among the troops sent to combat. A documentary is being made about them, and Denius speaks the cameras are rolling. Smiling widely, he jokes, “I was barely nineteen when I went to France. And when I left in August of the same year, I’d turned forty.”

Denius speaks movingly of the adversity that he and his division faced on the their journey to Paris. “I crawled, I walked, I swam, and at times I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t brushed my teeth in over two months, nor had I had a bath nor change of clothes for two months.” His head drops a little and the crowd can see a weariness creep into his face, a tired that never quite left him.

He slips back to the frozen December hell of the Battle of the Bulge and remembers, “We fought 24/7 in that battle, with snow. I can’t tell you how cold it was…” He trails off, and suddenly it’s not so hot outside. When Denius looks back up, his eyes gleam, more resolved, “But that really didn’t matter because we had an objective to accomplish, and that was to get the Germans out of France and liberate France.”

After four years of occupation under the Nazi German army, French citizens were elated to see the American troops, their knights in shining armor. The soldiers of Denius’ division were met with a generous reception of the French people waving American flags. “They threw us flowers,” Denius recalls. “They gave us pies. It’s pretty hard to have a 6-pound radio and a rifle and eat a pie.” They made do.

Even all these years later, the gratitude is still there. Two years ago, Frank Denius went back to Mortagne, where he walked up a hill with 500 Frenchmen to be honored there. But now as a real live burnt-orange knight, he hopes the ideals he fought for won’t be lost, he says. “I hope that American people will always understand what freedom is and the price of freedom. Because if you don’t, there still remain French people who can describe it for you.”

Photos by Matt Valentine.


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