Years before C.B. Gambrell Jr. became the University of Central Florida’s first vice president for academic affairs in 1967, he served in the U.S. Army as a sergeant and combat engineer.

He was at the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of the Rhineland during World War II, and he received a Purple Heart for his service during the 1945 Battle for Remagen Bridge in Germany, a key victory for the Allies.

Recently, he was bestowed another honor, Knight of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest decoration, for his courage and selfless service to France while serving in the Army’s 276th Engineer Combat Battalion.

“We were sometimes out in front of our own infantry doing projects,” said Gambrell, who left UCF in 1978. “We swept fields for mines, built bridges and did road work.”

Gambrell enlisted in 1942 while he was a student at the University of Alabama. He said he is still in contact with a couple other men who served with him.  

He was nominated for the award about 18 months ago, he said, and a background check from French officials in the United States followed. During the presentation in Orlando, 10 people were given the award by a French admiral.

“Your decision to fight for freedom was an admirable act,” Elaine Machado of the Legion of Honor wrote in a letter for the presentation. “The solidarity you lent our country and people as a soldier will never be forgotten; be assured that we are eternally grateful.”

During his tenure at UCF, Gambrell was also a faculty member in the College of Engineering. He received his Bachelor of Arts at Florida Southern College; Bachelor of Science at Clemson University; MBA at West Coast University; Master of Science and Engineering at the University of Florida; an honorary LL.D. at Southern California Institute of Law; and Ph.D. at Purdue University.

After leaving UCF, Gambrell held positions at West Coast University, Mercer University and Mercer Engineering Research Center. He now lives with his wife, Olive, in Lakeland.

Gambrell, a retired lieutenant colonel of the Army Reserve, said the Legion of Honor presentation made him reflect on days past.

“It’s easier now to see and realize what we accomplished, and that the sacrifices we made were worthwhile,” he said.