This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy. That may seem like a long time ago, but to those who were there and to those who live free from tyranny because of it, June 6, 1944, was not so long ago.
To commemorate this important date, many official ceremonies will take place both in France and the United States. On June 6, seven binational commemorations will be held in Normandy, including a French-American ceremony at the American cemetery at Colleville s/Mer in the presence of the president of the French Republic and President Barak Obama. Several hundred American veterans of World War II will attend the event, including five from South Carolina. Then later that afternoon, an international ceremony will unite 17 heads of state and governments in the city of Ouistreham in the department of Calvados in Basse-Normandie. These events promise to be a special moment to render homage to all of the brave allied soldiers who fought, side by side, in very difficult situations.
Likewise, in Columbia, the consulate general of France will host a ceremony at the State House on June 6, honoring nine veterans of World War II from South Carolina who fought to help liberate France from Nazi occupation during 1944-1945 with France’s highest distinction, the Legion of Honor.
Founded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the National Order of the Legion of Honor recognizes eminent services to the French Republic. Recipients of this honor are designated by the president of the Republic of France. About 10 years ago, President Jacques Chirac instituted the policy of bestowing the Legion of Honor upon all veterans of WWII who fought on French soil between 1944 and 1945. The decision was made because of the desire to express the solemn gratitude of France to all these American soldiers who fought on French soil during WWII. Since then, several hundred have been decorated across the entire American territory. Whether it was 10 years ago or today, it is never too late to express to these American veterans the eternal gratitude of France and the French people.
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Since taking over my functions almost two years ago, I was quite surprised to discover how many veterans of World War II were settled in the U.S. Southeast. So far, I have had the honor of participating in 12 Legion of Honor ceremonies in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. It is always an immense pleasure for me to honor these American veterans of WWII, surrounded by their friends and family. I can honestly say that ceremonies like the one that will take place at the State House on Friday are among the most gratifying responsibilities that I have in my job as consul general of France in Atlanta.
The Legion of Honor ceremonies carry both the weight of the past and the euphoria of the future, providing an opportunity for a sort of transmission of memory and history when the veterans are honored before their loved ones. Indeed, many veterans have memories that, for reasons of discretion, they have not always shared with their family, their children, their grandchildren and their great grandchildren all that they lived through and saw. As I read each man’s heroic actions before decorating him with the insignia of knight in the Legion of Honor, a bridge is built between the past, the present and, for those who will carry on that memory, the future.
Often, the veterans participated in the same battles in Normandy but they didn’t know each other, since the movements of the troops were swift. Nevertheless, as they sit lined up before their families, awaiting their decoration, they all exude a spirit of camaraderie, pride and sorrow. Indeed, the ceremonies are a highly emotional moment during which the veterans remember their friends and fellow soldiers who never returned home, resting forever on French soil. It is also of them we must think when we celebrate these heroic American veterans of World War II.
Here at the consulate general, we will continue to do our part to render homage to those who fought to restore freedom to the French people. Our veterans’ affairs office is processing applications as quickly as possible to ensure that each eligible veteran receives France’s highest honor. After all, these men are our heroes, and we, the French, we will never forget them.