DRAGUIGNAN, France (AP) – France opened a weekend tribute Saturday to the American, French and African soldiers who helped liberate its land from Nazi Germany’s grip in one of the least-remembered military operations of World War II: the Allied invasion of the Riviera.

On the eve of a ceremony involving heads of state from 15 nations and representatives from six other countries – mainly former African colonies – France thanked British and American veterans of Operation Dragoon for their role in what is called “the other D-Day.”

Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade says he will establish an annual holiday on Aug. 23 to commemorate the “forgotten” role the hundreds of thousands of African troops played in France’s World War II liberation.

The operation came 10 weeks after the bigger, bloodier Normandy invasion of June 6, 1944, and pushed German troops into a closing Allied pincer movement.

Nine British paratroopers and nine American soldiers, among more than 350,000 troops who stormed ashore Aug. 15, 1944, received the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award, in separate ceremonies Saturday.

“France knows what it owes to the heroes of America who liberated us 60 years ago,” Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said as she pinned the chests of the American vets in a ceremony at the U.S. military cemetery in Draguignan and kissed each of the nine on both cheeks.

The vets were seated between immaculate rows of 861 marble crosses and stars of David, beneath U.S. and French flags.

“We have never forgotten. We will never forget,” she said, expressing France’s “eternal recognition.”

Both Alliot-Marie and Adm. Gregory Johnson, commander of U.S. Naval forces in Europe, praised the French-America friendship, making no reference to the discord over the U.S. invasion of Iraq that strained ties.

“I was ready to cry. You feel so honored here. It’s memories that never fade,” 81-year-old John Petruska, of Pittsburgh, said after being decorated.

Petruska was later captured by the Germans in the Colmar pocket in eastern France and held for five months.

“I have to pinch myself at being honored like this. The French people never forgot us,” he said.

Petruska was among the soldiers of the Third Infantry Division that took part in the amphibious landings after some 9,000 British and American paratroopers were dropped in to pave the way for the landings.

Paratroopers were honored at an earlier ceremony north of St. Tropez, at La Motte – the first town liberated by Operation Dragoon.

Michael Compton, an 83-year-old veteran paratrooper from Epping, England, among the nine given the Legion of Honor, was humble.

“I’m very honored to get it,” he said. But he added, “I don’t know why I deserve it. It was just a job for us. We didn’t think anything of it.”

Under heavy fog and darkness, many of the Allied paratroopers who were supposed to land in the grassy plains around La Motte were dropped off target, making it difficult to regroup. Some plunged into the Mediterranean and perished.

Strategically, the southern assault echoed Normandy’s Operation Overlord on a smaller scale. Thousands of soldiers parachuted inland overnight ahead of the amphibious landings that delivered troops to beaches between Cannes and Toulon.

But the similarities between the two operations ended there.

When landing craft pulled onto the French Riviera’s beaches, soldiers met minimal resistance.

The chaos of battle has prevented a definitive Allied death toll, but the French Defense Ministry says 1,300 Allied soldiers died in the first two days.

African heads of state will make up the majority of leaders present Sunday when President Jacques Chirac honors the soldiers of Operation Dragoon. Some 200,000 of the troops who stormed ashore in the south were from France’s Africa army, made up of men from its colonies.

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