Two Minnesotans receive France's Legion of Honor awardby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The ceremony took place in the Capitol Rotunda. About 50 family members and friends sat and watched as politicians and Minnesota National Guard leaders thanked Walter Halloran and Merrill Burgstahler for their service. Minnesota's state flag was perched next to the podium. The French and American flags sat on the other side.
"It is a great honor and privilege to be in front of you today to pay tribute to the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for France and Western Europe," says France's Honorary Consul Alain Frecon.
Honorary Consul Frecon delivered the medal to the two elderly gentlemen. He said the Legion of Honor medal is awarded to those who gave outstanding service to France. Napolean Bonaparte created the medal in 1802. Fracon said he and his countrymen would never forget the service of those who fought to liberate France.
"As a personal note and as a member of the first wave of the French baby boomers, I am a living testimony of your sacrifice and gift to France. I do owe you and your fallen comrades my freedom," says Frecon.
Both veterans choked up while sharing their memories of their time in Europe.
Merrill Burgstahler, who lives in Minnetonka, served in the 777th anti-aircraft battlion in the 6th Armored Division Air Force. He said his battalion was responsible for shooting down 111 German planes during the Battle of the Bulge and during campaigns in Central Europe, the Rhineland, Normandy and Eastern and Northern France. Burghstahler said this was the second award that he received from the French people.
"My first one consisted of a little French boy standing on the hedgerows of Normandy pouring cider for all our crew. He also gave me a pair of wooden shoes as a souvenir and I still have them," Burgstahler explained to the crowd.
Walter Halloran lives in Rochester. He was wearing his old Army uniform for the ceremony. He joined the Army in 1942 at the age of 19. He said the first time he set foot in France was on Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944, which he said was under "rather tumultuous circumstances." Halloran was a member of the 165th Signal Photo Company that was charged with filming the Normandy invasion.
Halloran showed some boyish enthusiasm during the ceremony. He jokingly asked why he didn't receive a ceremonial kiss on both cheeks after the medal was pinned on him. He also joked about the benefits of his new medal.
"I don't know if this old soldier will ever see the lights of Paris again but if I do sir, I can assure that I'll be wearing a device indicating the presence of this high honor," says Hallroan. "I will do that with the anticipation and expectation that some astute maitre de will recognize it for what it is and promptly show us a good table."
Halloran said this may be the last award he receives for his service during World War II. Both Burgstahler and he said they were accepting the award on behalf of all Americans who served in World War II. Minnesota's Commissioner of Veterans Affairs says now five Minnesotans have received the award in the past three years.
- All Things Considered, 12/18/2007, 5:24 p.m.