EVERETT — Ignazio “Nat” Gattinella smiles wide when people thank him.
In World War II, he served in B Company, 397th Regiment, 100th Infantry Division, helping liberate France from the Nazis.
He remembers the rain of mortars over his foxhole, the friends lost who still grin from photographs, and the names of the towns they freed, one after another.
At 86, Gattinella accepts each thanks with grace, happy to share the stories worn soft by time and use.
Gattinella was honored Saturday during a ceremony at the Emeritus at Silver Lake retirement community, where he was awarded the rank of chevalier, or knight, in the French Legion of Honor, that country’s highest destinction.
About three dozen people squeezed into and around the small lobby to watch Jack Cowan, the honorary consul of France in Seattle, perform the brief ceremony and pin the ribbon to Gattinella’s lapel.
Behind them sat a glass case of Gattinella’s military medals and ribbons, including the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
Gattinella was a rifleman and machine gunner during some of the fiercest fighting in France in the winter of 1944, Cowan said.
“More than 60 years ago, you rescued people you did not know, but rest assured we did not forget about you. You will never be forgotten,” Cowan said.
Gattinella addressed the crowd briefly, and thanked them for coming. He asked people to remember “those who still wear the uniform” and to pray for their safe return.
“God Bless France. God Bless America,” he said.
Afterward, people waited in line to thank Gattinella and shake his hand.
His son, John, and daughter-in-law, Judy, were in the front row.
“He’s just been so happy and so proud to have this occur,” John Gattinella said.
“He’s very proud of his service, and we’re very proud of him, too,” Judy Gattinella said.
Nat Gattinella attends exercise classes at Emeritus at Silver Lake several times a week and has for 20 years.
He created the exercise group’s newsletter and includes photos, jokes and bits of community news, said Diane Meadows, his exercise instructor.
“He is very humble, very helpful,” she said.
Gattinella is funny and kind to classmates, Meadows said. They like to tease him about his encyclopedic knowledge, joking that instead of using the Internet, they “Google Nat,” she said.
In the past, they’ve struggled trying to find questions to stump him. Once, someone thought they could do it, and asked him the name of the Lone Ranger’s horse.
Gattinella knew it, instantly: Silver.
“We just love him,” she said. “He’s very much a gentleman.”
Gattinella lives in Marysville with his wife, Virginia. They have three children, John, Linda and Frances, some of whom were at the ceremony, 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He worked a number of jobs, including opening a machine shop, before retiring in 1989.
Among his mementos from the war is a letter he wrote “Ginny,” his girlfriend then and still his wife, dated Dec. 13, 1944.
“I certainly don’t want to be a hero,” it says in one part.
In another, downplaying his injuries from shrapnel that tore into his shoulders, arms and legs, he wrote, “I’ll still be able to put arms around you and still be able to dance.”
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; email@example.com.