Photo Gallery: World War II veteran Leif Erik Maseng speaks to USC graduates

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A new school year soon will begin, but an ending was on the agenda Saturday at the University of South Carolina’s summer commencement.

Dr. Leif Erik Maseng addresses USC graduates Saturday as President Harris Pastides (left) and Medal of Honor winner Kyle Carpenter listen (photo by Allen Wallace).

Leif Erik Maseng addresses USC graduates Saturday as university President Harris Pastides (left) and Medal of Honor winner Kyle Carpenter listen. (photo by Allen Wallace)

The ceremony at Colonial Life recognized 1,086 Gamecocks who recently earned degrees at the Columbia campus, along with 392 others from campuses around the state, but two of the day’s loudest ovations were reserved for the commencement speaker and his escort.

Speaker Leif Erik Maseng told the graduates, “Freedom in America did not come easily and is not guaranteed.” Maseng learned the truth of that statement firsthand just after midnight June 6, 1944, as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division. He and his fellow paratroopers dove into Nazi-occupied France to prepare the way for the D-Day invasion, leaping from planes despite a barrage of German shells and machine gun fire.

Maseng survived the day and went on to fight throughout the war in Europe, including the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. He spoke to the graduates about the need for vigilance and their responsibility to preserve American freedom.

“Be aware and fight back when necessary,” he said. “Fly the Star-Spangled Banner at your homes. It will help you remember.

Maseng, who has lived in Columbia since 1964, was escorted into the ceremony by another American military hero: Medal of Honor winner and current USC student Kyle Carpenter. Each of the men received a standing ovation from the graduates and the audience.

Maseng, as Carpenter often has, spoke of his brothers in arms and deferred credit for his own actions. Having recently returned to France for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, he said he heard himself called a hero often.

“That term was difficult to accept,” he said, “Especially when standing among those thousands of stark white crosses, each representing a true hero.”

The commencement address’ tone was serious, but ended on a lighter note.

“Godspeed in your days ahead. God bless America. And go Gamecocks!” Maseng said.

Maseng was awarded an honorary doctorate during the ceremony, as were civil rights pioneers Henrie Monteith Treadwell and James Lewis Solomon Jr. and retired USC professor Jerome David Odom.