Canadian D-Day veterans awarded Legion of Honour more than 70 years after liberation of France

They sat in the front row, of course. Nineteen elderly, white-haired, frail men. Seated behind them were wives, children, grandchildren, smiling proudly, some in tears.

As the French Ambassador stood before each man to read his name and bend to pin the medal on their jackets, they tried to stiffen shoulders and backs as though still in uniform. A few struggled to their feet to stand at attention.

Some 70 years ago, during the , these men were among the thousands of young Canadian soldiers, sailors and airmen who took part in the D-Day Normandy landings and liberation of .

They received a last salute Tuesday evening in a ceremony at the French Embassy, where each was awarded the Legion of Honour, France’s highest national award.

“We want to pay tribute to you for your contribution …(to) free France from the yoke of fascism,” Ambassador Nicolas Chapuis said. “You are an inspiration to your children, your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren. They can look on you with pride.”

And they did.

“This has been a special day for our family,” said Greg Lamarre, whose grandfather, William Moore, was one of the veterans to receive the medal. “We’ve always been proud of our grandfather.”

Understandably so. Moore, 94, a one-time member of the Canadian Army’s Corps of Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, was badly burned when a Sherman tank he was servicing was hit by a German shell. He spent months recovering in hospital. In 1952, however, he was back in the army, serving in the Korean War. He now lives with is wife, Marjorie, an English war bride, in North Gower.

Sadly, not every award recipient was able to attend the ceremony. One veteran, Walter Kaspar, a former RCAF pilot, is in hospital. He’ll get his medal on Remembrance Day.

Julie Oliver/Postmedia NewsJulie Oliver/Postmedia NewsNineteen Second World War veterans received the French Legion of Honour at the French embassy in Ottawa on Nov. 10, 2015.

Another veteran, George Bova, died last week. He was 94. However, two of his sons, Ron and Steve Bova, were on hand to represent him.

“We are very honoured to receive this award on my father’s behalf,” said Ron. “We wish he was here with us tonight.”

Bova joined the RCAF in 1942 at the age of 21. After his training he was sent overseas, serving as a radio operation with Bomber Command in Halifax and Lancaster bombers. He flew 60 missions. During the D-Day landings and later, Bova’s squadron flew sorties to “soften” German defences.

“It was extremely dangerous,” Steve said, recalling his father wartime accounts. “They were the first to arrive to mark the target (for the bombers coming behind them) and then they had to orbit the target in the middle of all the flak.”

Indeed, on one mission flak from a German anti-aircraft battery punched a hole in window inches from Bova’s head. Another time, a plane flying overhead dropped one its bombs on Bova’s plane.

Julie Oliver/Postmedia NewsJulie Oliver/Postmedia NewsVeteran Gerard Juneau, 92, secures his new medal (white cross) on top of the others on his chest.

“One time the pilot told him to keep an eye on a plane next to them that getting too close,” said Steve. “My dad was watching it carefully when all of a sudden it just exploded. Seven men gone, just like that.”

“He marvelled that he survived,” Ron added. “Sixty missions — the odds were against him surviving. I would imagine it was very hard (to return to civilian life) after risking your life every night and putting up with all that stress. As he got older, he used to say, ‘We were just lucky.’”

Donald McKechnie, 92, was another of those lucky ones. A RCAF veteran, he served with the Royal Air Force and flew 57 missions in Lancaster bombers between 1943 and 1944. During the Normandy invasion his Pathfinder squadron flew close support for troops on the ground.

“I’m very honoured (to receive the medal), but I feel I’m representing a lot of other people, particularly those who never made it back,” he said. “Every mission that we flew we lost people.”

Gérard Juneau, 92, spent most of his war with the Royal Canadian Navy. Serving on a corvette, HMCS Rimouski, he criss-crossed the submarine-infested the North Atlantic on convoy runs. On D-Day, Juneau and his ship protected landing craft taking soldiers onto the beaches.

“I’m very, very honoured to receive this award,” he said, adding that he couldn’t help but think of friends he’d known during the war.

RelatedAs many as 400 Canadian D-Day veterans miss out on French honour because names weren’t forwarded

Tuesday’s ceremony was part of commemorations, sponsored by the French government, of the 70th anniversary of the Allied Landings in Normandy and Provence. The veterans at the ceremony are among about 1,000 Canadians who will have been so awarded over the course of the commemoration campaign.

France’s Legion of Honour was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. It rewards citizens for meritorious service, irrespective of social or hereditary considerations.

Other veterans who received the decoration included Ivan Acorn, John Bray, Albert Bridgewater, Peter Craske, Raymond Farley, George Fouchard, Gilbert Fowlow, Robert Hanley, John Highley, Frédéreick Hunt, Marcel Huot, Ronald Joseph Little, George Melnechuk, Herbert Blair Neatby, Allan Notman, and James Scharf.

Ottawa Citizen

Julie Oliver/Postmedia NewsJulie Oliver/Postmedia NewsThe Legion of Honour is France's highest military honour.

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