A local resident has been honoured recently with one of France’s most prestigious war medals – Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Legion d’Honneur, known in English as a Knight to Legion of Honour.
Joe Bill received his letter of recognition from the French Embassy in Ottawa, who represent the government of France, roughly a month ago. He and his family were quite excited, they said, when they got the news.
“I don’t know what I felt at first, really, other than just being surprised. The first letter came in over three weeks ago and then I got a phone call asking about different things like where to send the medal and if I wanted to go to a presentation somewhere. I said no, and they just sent it to my house,” said Bill.
“I am pretty honoured to have it, although it took awhile to figure out why I got it. I was just so surprised.”
Bill was supposed to deploy to France for D-Day on June 6th, 1944, but he was ill and therefore did not arrive that day. He did end up in France and took part in the liberation of the country, fighting alongside other Canadians as well as French soldiers.
Bill went to Camrose as a 16-year-old boy to register for the army although he was underage. He was admitted, and by the time he was 17 he was sent overseas. Bill was wounded while in France and brought back to Canada.
“I actually had three brothers in France serving at the same time I did. There were six of us in the service – four of us in the army, and I had a brother and sister in the navy. You just went one day at a time – that’s all you could do,” said Bill.
Meanwhile, Bill’s medal comes from the Legion of Honour (Legion d’Honneur) which was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, with the first medals being awarded in 1804.
There are five classes of medals that can be presented and are given according to the ranks of the person being honoured. The highest honour, the Grand Cross (Grand Croix) is seldom awarded. Bill was presented with the Chevalier, or Knight, as recognition of his participation and bravery as he fought to liberate France.
With Remembrance Day around the corner, Bill said that it is hard but important to participate.
“November 11th brings back too many memories. It’s difficult, but I always go to the Legion ceremony but it’s hard. Young people need to remember and hope that this never happens again. We have enough trouble as it is in some countries and war is pure hell. This year, we’ll go over there like we always do.”
Bill’s daughter and wife are both proud of the service that he put forth as a youth.
“It’s just very much an honour to get an award from a foreign country that appreciates the effort he gave when he went over there. We’ve never had a war on our soil, really, so when these countries that were so affected give their thanks, it means a lot,” said daughter Brenda.
“There aren’t a lot of Second World War veterans alive anymore. It’s just an incredible honour for Dad to have gotten this award and to be recognized. This is an award thanking all of the Second World War veterans who are still alive, who served in France and helped liberate the country.”
Joe’s wife, Elaine, said that she was surprised and thrilled for her husband. She said the initial letter and information was a big surprise, because no one expects to get a letter from the French Embassy in Ottawa, with recognition from the French government.
Joe’s medal, the Knight, is awarded to those who have demonstrated bravery and ‘eminent merits’, according to Wikipedia. That means there was a flawless performance of one’s trade as well as doing more than ordinarily expected.
Remembrance Day holds a special significance for the Bill family, as it does for many Canadians who lost loved ones, or who fought themselves. Brenda said that as a teacher, she knows how important it is for youth to remember and really understand what the war meant.
Joe agreed with his daughter adding young people need to hope that nothing like that happens again. He described the scenes of France as simply awful, with little other words to describe the horrors of war.
Joe travelled to France for the 40th anniversary of D-Day with his wife. He said that going back wasn’t too hard, but the memories were. Now, there is a plaque with his name and the names of his brothers among other Canadians who fought for the liberation of France. The plaque rests at the memorial museum on Juno Beach, in Normandy, France.