By D. Lars Dolder, Chatham News + Registration Staff
Wesley Hart did not speak at the ceremony last Thursday during which he received the French Legion of Honor.
He didn’t have to. The 102-year-old Chathamite’s service in WWII spoke volumes.
More than 100 people gathered at New Salem Church on Old Graham Road in Pittsboro to see the Chapel Ridge resident accept France’s highest decoration of distinction for those in military and civilian life.
To date, only around 92,000 have received the award, which Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte himself introduced in 1802. Most of the recipients of the Legion of Honor are by far French nationals. But Hart has joined an exclusive roster of American laureates, including figures such as former Army General George S. Patton, former Army General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower and aviator Charles Lindbergh.
“As these veterans get older, (the prize) is awarded less and less,” French consul general Vincent Hommeril told News + Record. “… Ambassadors, French consuls abroad, are responsible for presenting these medals to foreign soldiers who have landed in France to help liberate France, and it is a real honor for us. It’s always a pleasure. As you can see, it’s a very good day for everyone.
Hommeril, who is based at the French Embassy in Atlanta, presented Hart with the Medal for his service in France after D-Day 1944. Hart served in the 44th and 102nd Infantry Divisions on active service from September 1942 to February 1946. He was also the recipient of the Bronze Star for his service during the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944-45.
For his “heroic actions and extraordinary achievements,” Hommeril said, Hart “was appointed to the Legion of Honor by French President Emmanuel Macron with the rank of knight”.
For Hommeril, it was a personal honor to meet Hart and offer his gratitude.
“It’s special for me personally because I was born in Normandy,” Hommeril said. “So I know what the war did to France. And so for me, it’s a personal blessing to be able to do this because it’s a kind of gratitude to those veterans who helped liberate French soil – and my soil. I am really lucky to be able to do this professionally and personally.
To Hart’s family, the award represents more than his service in WWII, but recognition of the character and decency with which Hart has always lived his life.
“I’m so happy for Dad,” Lynne Dyer, one of Hart’s daughters, told News + Record after the ceremony. “I think the influx of volunteers and the enthusiasm of people we don’t even know is so touching. Our father has always been an exceptional person and has done so much with putting others first. And I mean, we need this stuff to celebrate together.
About three years ago, Dyer and his sister, Kathy Wakeman, began the process of applying for the Legion of Honor after another loyalist and Veterans of Foreign Wars member, Phil Bienvenue, informed them of the opportunity.
“Like most veterans, he didn’t want to talk about his experiences for a long time,” Bienvenue, a Vietnam War veteran, said of Hart. “But what I was saying to his daughters was, ‘This is too important. We cannot let this kind of story die.
The sisters gathered documents to prove their father’s service history and completed the lengthy application. They submitted it to the French consulate in Atlanta, then they waited – for two years.
“We really didn’t think anything would come out of this,” Wakeman said at the ceremony. “It’s surreal now to think that we are actually here and that Dad has got the recognition he deserves.”
His daughters have always known that their father served with honor. But for most of his life, Hart was silent on the details of his time in war-torn Europe. After starting the process of applying for the Legion of Honor, something changed. Now, over a year later, and with the help of Dyer and Wakeman, Hart has recorded his story for all posterity in a 54-page self-published book, “WWII: In My Words.”
In the concise and pragmatic style his daughters know so well, Hart tells the story of his wartime experience: from his stay in England in the main staging area for the invasion of Normandy on June 6, to his time in England. own landing on Omaha Beach shortly thereafter and its subsequent role in the Battle of the Bulge.
In addition to the first-person story of major events in the war, “WWII: In My Words” is filled with Hart’s ideas, observations, and personal memories. In a section on the Battle of the Bulge, for example, Hart writes that his company was stationed near a destroyed railway bridge in Dusseldorf, Germany. In the marshalling yard “three flatbed wagons were loaded with German rockets”.
“Our general wanted to know if the bombs could be returned to the Germans,” Hart writes. “It became my job as a division administration officer to find a way to do just that. I asked for help from two other officers, and we found a building in the brickyard where there was a bomb shelter. There was also a large bomb crater in the courtyard. The bombs were 18 inches in diameter and about four feet long and were housed in a crate that had a hinged front end that opened. With wire and detonators, we were able to fire a single rocket bomb from the shelter. He crossed the Rhine as we had planned.
That kind of ingenuity and dedication – in the face of some danger – characterizes the man Hart’s daughters have known all their lives. In her speech at Thursday’s ceremony, Dyer quickly departed from the script she had prepared, overcome with emotion.
“That’s exactly the kind of person daddy is,” she said, “he’s always shared his many talents and he’s done it so generously… Oh, I could go on and on. There is so much more to tell you about our amazing daddy. He is certainly a man to admire, a friend forever, darling – a father without equal. We love you dad for being our example, teaching us skills and loving us unconditionally.
Other attendees at the ceremony included Senator Valerie Foushee, Pittsboro City Manager Chris Kennedy, Chatham Sheriff Mike Roberson and a regional representative from the office of US Senator Thom Tillis. Mike Fenley, a field representative for United States Senator Richard Burr, presented Hart with a flag flying above the United States Capitol to commemorate the service of the Army Captain.
“I’ve been to a lot of awards ceremonies,” Fenley told News + Record afterwards, “but I’ve never been to one of them. It’s pretty rare.”
For Hart – who jokes that at 40, I always said, ‘I hope I can live to be 70’ – the medal is a touching tribute, and he is happy to have lived long enough. to see her.
“I feel good,” he said after the ceremony. “I never thought I would be given something like this.”
But even more touching, he said, was seeing the many friends, family and members of the public who gathered in his honor.
“I’m just surprised they all came,” he said. “My two daughters, they did a great job trying to coordinate this thing… I’m really grateful to them.”
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