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Memories of War: WW II hero decorated 60 years later

From Brian Todd

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Among decorated veterans, at a place they now call their own, Michel Thomas is decorated for the first time -- at age 90.

At a ceremony 60 years in the making, just days before the dedication of the World War II Memorial, former senator and fellow veteran Bob Dole presented Thomas with an award "for gallantry in action against the enemy in France."

Michel Kroskof Thomas is a Polish-born Jew who was raised in Germany.

He was a young man when Adolf Hitler took power. Separated from his family, Thomas made his way to France, but not far enough.

Thomas was rounded up after the Nazis invaded France, and was placed in labor camps for two years. He escaped, narrowly missing a deportation to Auschwitz, where he later learned his mother and father were killed.

Where many might have looked for a way out, Thomas joined the French resistance.

"It was a fight against evil, and against those who slaughtered my mother, my father, a whole large family," says Thomas.

Thomas was interrogated, he says, by the head of the Gestapo in Lyon, a man with a reputation for torture and murder, the notorious "Butcher of Lyon," Klaus Barbie.

Thomas says he talked Barbie into believing his prisoner was not Jewish.

"It is very important also in dangerous situations not to be afraid, not to give into fear," says Thomas.

Thomas then made his way to the American side of the fighting, and in 1944, joined a U.S. Army combat intelligence unit.

Daring reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines brought him a nomination for the Silver Star. It was never awarded. No one knows why.

With German forces on the run, Thomas joined the unit liberating the Dachau concentration camp and personally captured two Nazis wanted for war crimes.

And, according to a U.S. archivist who was there at the time as a soldier, Thomas intercepted the entire files of the worldwide membership of the Nazi Party just before they were to be destroyed at a pulp mill.

"They enabled us to find war criminals and to have the evidence to punish them, and to de-Nazify and to find the Germans that we could trust," says former archivist Robert Wolfe.

In 2001, a newspaper report questioned some of Thomas's claims, and a movement to authenticate his Silver Star picked up momentum. Key members of Congress got involved; the Pentagon reviewed his case; and soldiers who hadn't seen him in 60 years came forward to attest to his bravery.

"When you had a chance to work with him, and saw what his total commitment was to the cause, to the work, well -- you feel obligated to do almost as well as he was doing," says World War II veteran Bedford Groves, who served with Thomas.

Now, a man who moved with history, and helped alter it, stands with his medal.

"Happy is not the right word for me," says Thomas. "It moves me very deeply."

Since the war, Thomas has developed a successful language program. At age 90, he's still publishing, and lives in New York with his two children, who are in their 20s.

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