AUGUSTA — Sixty-seven years after Arthur Willard survived a brutal battle at the French town of Saint-Lo, the French government thanked the man from Lewiston with its most prestigious honor.
Willard, now 86, stood chest-out as an officer of the French Consulate in Boston pinned the Legion of Honor on Willard’s jacket.
“France has never forgotten and will never forget,” Vice Consul Gregory Hamon said.
The diplomat kissed Willard on both cheeks.
It’s a sign of affection that’s being shown more and more around America as France is reaching out to the remaining living soldiers of Normandy.
The Legion of Honor was created in 1802 by Napoleon and is the highest honor the French government can bestow. Each recent medal is accompanied by a decree signed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
“We’re trying not to lose the opportunity to honor these men while they are alive,” Hamon said.
The history of World War II and the Allied liberation of France is taught in every school and is being recalled by a younger generation of French men and women, Hamon said. Thanking the soldiers who fought to free France from Nazi occupation is part of that exercise.
In November, the French honored Rene Marquis of Auburn with the medal.
At the Wednesday presentation at Togus VA Medical Center, the French honored Willard and Harold Roderick of Baileyville.
Roderick was 20 years old when he landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day: June 6, 1944. His job was to help coordinate wave after wave of landing troops.
“We ran the beach,” he said.
Getting there wasn’t easy, though. His landing craft stopped about 200 feet short of dry land with water reaching to his neck.
About half of his unit’s 1,300 men were killed, many in the hellfire of German artillery.
Willard arrived in Normandy a few weeks later, when the fighting had moved inland. The Germans were falling back and regrouping with terrible might.
His unit was charged with taking the German stronghold at Saint-Lo. There, too, the casualties were staggering. About 45 percent of the unit was lost in less than a month.
Willard recalled an incident in which a buddy was hurt and exposed to German guns.
Men tried reaching him and failed. When they finally brought him to safety, he died.
“That stays with you,” Willard said.
So did the courage of the French people, he said.
“I saw the determination these people had after years of occupation,” he said. “They took a chance to help us.”
He said he was honored by the medal and the ceremony, which featured a performance by the Maine Department of Public Safety’s Pipe and Drum Corps. Members of the Maine Woodcarvers Association awarded Willard and Roderick custom-made canes with eagle heads on top.
“I have nothing but the greatest gratitude,” Willard said. “We served the best we could. We did everything we could. And we’re lucky to be here alive to say it.”