On a warm, dark night in June 1944, Robert Cross was at the helm of an allied glider over Normandy, concentrating on the sky with all his might. His mission: to deliver his men safely into enemy territory, where they could begin fighting to liberate France from German forces.
The cockpit was utterly silent.
Suddenly, the night lit up with tracer fire. Bullets from anti-aircraft guns punched through the wings as Cross descended and brought the glider in for a controlled crash landing.
He successfully landed the British glider, but emerged from the cockpit to face a new obstacle: enemy troops, who weren't expecting allied forces in their territory.
"We were surrounded completely by guys who didn't like us being there," Cross said.
On Wednesday, nearly 70 years later, Cross was surrounded by different company: family, fellow officers and friends. They had all gathered at his home at Eskaton Lodge in Granite Bay to see him receive the French Legion of Honor medal for his service that fateful night.
When he stepped up to receive the award, Cross was nearly as silent as his World War II-era glider.
The 92-year-old walked to the lectern assisted by a cane and addressed the French consular official who presented him with the medal.
"I'd like to thank you, Mrs. (Jane) Wheaton, for this reward for my tour where I helped kick the Nazis out of France with a million other guys, some of whom are right here in this room," Cross said.
The speech was a short one, and only touched on one aspect of Cross' 32-year military career, which began with World War II and ended in the midst of the Cold War.
But Col. Kenneth Hall, vice wing commander for Beale Air Force Base, reminded the crowd that Cross' military career wasn't confined to his D-Day heroics.
All told, he flew 14 World War II missions. The gliders he piloted were large, silent transports to carry troops across enemy lines, often in advance of the main invasion force. The gliders were towed by motorized airplanes, then released over enemy lines, where they landed without the assistance of landing gear.
"Let's also remember that with gliders, you get one shot at the landing and if successful, now you're on the ground, behind enemy lines, ahead of the main invasion force," Hall said. "This is the stuff of legends."
The arc of Cross' career took him to civilian life after the war ended, then back into military service as an electronic warfare officer, Hall said.
"Most people would have been content with such a proud wartime record and moved on to a more relaxed, cushy civilian life," Hall said.
Cross worked for Strategic Air Command, which directed U.S. bombers and coordinated nuclear missile defenses in the emerging Cold War. He helped plan the U-2 mission, which photographed a cluster of nuclear missile sites being built in Cuba.
During a 13-day confrontation between nuclear superpowers the United States and the Soviet Union, Cross was stressed as he worked 20-hour days while constantly worrying for his family's safety. "I was really afraid for them," he said.
After retiring from the military as a lieutenant colonel in 1970, Cross went into service as an assistant to California Lt. Gov. Ed Reinecke, who was second-in-command to then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. He bumped into the future president at a Christmas party.
"Really wonderful man," Cross said of Reagan.
Although Cross has numerous military decorations, including multiple air medals and battle stars, he counts his family as his biggest achievement.
"I'm not a medal man," he said. "The guys that deserve the medals are the privates and the corporals and the sergeants. Too many of us wore the medals they won."
Cross' daughter, Linda Hobbs, who submitted the nomination paperwork for her father, said he didn't talk much about the war while raising his family. He didn't like to talk about friends who didn't make it through the war, or the enemy he battled to survive.
"I think he's tried to suppress the negative aspect, but he's very proud to be a member of the best generation ever," Hobbs said.
During Tuesday's ceremony, Cross' children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren paid homage to their patriarch.
"We're very proud," Hobbs said. "And this event was just another saga in his legacy."
Call The Bee's Ben Mullin, (916) 321-1034.