France Bestows Highest Honor on U.S. World War II Vets
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jun. 4, 2004 France will bestow the Legion of Honor, that nation's highest award, upon 100 World War II American veterans this weekend.
French defense attach Maj. Gen. Pascal Vinchon addressed 100
D-Day veterans assembled at the French Embassy in Washington June 3. He called
their courage during the Normandy invasion "extraordinary." "We French people
owe you our liberty," he said. "And we will never forget it." The veterans
then traveled to France where they were to receive the Legion of Honor,
France's highest honor, in ceremonies in Paris and Normandy. Photo by Rudi
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
French Minister of Defense Michele Alliot-Marie will present the decoration June 5 to 99 of the aging combat heroes who fought to liberate France from the Nazi stranglehold on Paris. The ceremony will take place at the Hotel des Invalides, the most prestigious historic military building in Paris.
On June 6, D-Day, those same veterans will travel to Normandy, where French President Jacques Chirac will present the 100th veteran the Legion of Honor during an international ceremony. President Bush and 15 other heads of state are slated to attend also.
Before leaving for Paris, the 100 veterans and their families were honored with a reception here June 3 at the French Embassy. The group gathered in the embassy's theater for the showing of the short film "Operation Open Arms/D- Day," where French defense attach Maj. Gen. Pascal Vinchon called the veterans' courage during the Normandy invasion "extraordinary."
"You were prepared to sacrifice everything, including your love for freedom," Vinchon said. "Many of your comrades never saw France liberated. For sure, they're very present in our minds today and forever.
"We French people owe you our liberty," he told the aging heroes of the D- Day invasion 60 years ago. "And we will never forget it."
As a child a few years after the war, Vinchon said he used to make the victory sign to American soldiers on their way to their training camp near his hometown in France.
"I certainly know today, that the French people greet all the American heroes of World War II with that traditional motion," Vinchon noted. "We have a very profound gratitude with love for your country because of everything we share. You're going to experience it in France in a few hours.
"You're traveling to France under very special circumstances," he said to the veterans. "You represent the millions who fought on our soil. Through you and by bestowing upon you, the highest French distinction, the Legion of Honor, President Chirac on behalf of all the French people will say 'thank you' to all American veterans of World War II.
"Others will be awarded this medal later, but not in front of hundreds of cameras, not by a president, three ministers and all the highest brass of the French military," Vinchon noted. "Sixty years ago you didn't know what tomorrow would be like. You didn't know that you were heading toward the greatest endeavor ever planned."
French government officials enlisted the help of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in selecting the 100 veterans for the trip to France for the commemoration of D-Day. Their criteria was that the veterans served during the liberation of France from June 6, 1944, to May 8, 1945, and they had to have participated in one of the four major campaigns Normandy, Northern France, Southern France and the Ardennes.
"Sixty year ago, you gave your blood and your youth to France and to the French people," French Ambassador to the U.S. Jean-David Levitte told the American veterans. "Many did not return. They will stay forever in Normandy. They will stay forever in our hearts."
Levitte noted that on June 6, 15 heads of state will be in Normandy, thousands of men and women most of whom were not even born that day will be gathered there, and millions of people will follow the multinational ceremonies throughout the world.
"All will pay tribute to the soldiers and officers who sacrificed their young lives in France and Europe and to those who, like you, are fortunately still among us to remember," the ambassador said.
"Twice last century, in 1917 and in 1944, American solders restored freedom to my country, to my continent," Levitte continued. "We will never forget. France will never forget. Europe will never forget."
He said the American troops were heroes to the French people "heroes because we know how much courage, how much bravery it took to land on those hostile beaches, to drop from those planes, to fight a ferocious and merciless enemy."
"You were so young," he continued, "yet you were ready to sacrifice your young lives for our freedom. For a country that was not even yours. Now it is. The images of that day are part of our collective memory. Gratitude and remembrance are forever embedded in our souls. Every French person has a special place in his heart for you."
By presenting the French Legion of Honor, Veterans Affairs Undersecretary for Benefits Daniel Cooper told the French gathered at the embassy that they "also honor the service and sacrifice of millions of American men and women who helped to liberate France from Nazi tyranny."
Cooper said it was on the morning of June 6, 1944, that soldiers, sailors, Coast Guardsmen of the Allied Expeditionary forces began, in the words of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, "to bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe, and the security for ourselves in a free world."
Cooper said World War II wasn't just another war. "It was the defining event of the 20th century," he said. "Our triumph over oppression, democracy over totalitarianism, sacrifice over selfishness."