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Legion of Honor medal, France's highest military honor, given to WWII vets

By KRISTI L. NELSON AND BRIANNA PACIORKA | The Knoxville News-Sentinel (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 25, 2017

James "Bud" Mynatt came into the room at Sherrill Hills Retirement Community knowing he was to receive an honor but expecting to get "maybe a piece of paper," he said.

Instead, the World War II veteran left with the French National Order of the Legion of Honor medal – France's highest honor – pinned to his suit jacket.

Louis de Corail, the Consul General of France in Atlanta, was at the retirement community Monday afternoon to present the medals on behalf of French President Emmanuel Macron to Mynatt and fellow veteran Paul Willis of Canton, N.C., who traveled to Knoxville for the ceremony.

“Today we pay tribute to two American heroes, who more than 70 years ago risked their young lives for the freedom of France,” Corail said. “France is what it is today — a free and sovereign country — thanks to their bravery, and thanks to America. (This ceremony) is to recall the legacy of these veterans’ courage and their fight for freedom in a time of darkness … that came to power in Europe.”

Mynatt, a first lieutenant in the Army Air Corps’ 848th Bomb Squadron, 490th Bombardment Group, ultimately flew 35 missions — but his first was piloting a B-24 bomber over the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944: “D-Day.”

Mynatt’s crew that day was en route to northern France, to drop bombs on petroleum bases and other transportation targets in hopes of impeding the German troops’ movement.

“I was 20 years old, and it wasn’t scaring me very much,” he said.

Several missions in, though, he felt fear for what he said was the first and last time, when his plane lost both engines and suffered 330 holes from enemy fire, he said.

“That particular day I was so scared — I really thought I was going to die within two or three minutes,” Mynatt said. “I started praying, and I prayed as hard as I could. After it was over — the praying — I went into a dead calm, and I have never been afraid of anybody or anything since then.”

Mynatt — who returned to his native Knoxville after the war, married his high-school sweetheart and had a career as an automobile dealer — showed visible emotion during Monday’s ceremony, which also included speakers from the Alliance Francaise Knoxville and a brass quintet performing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and France’s national anthem, “La Marseillaise.”

“I wasn’t expecting such a thing, but it’s great,” said Mynatt, who had received other medals for his wartime service. “I really appreciate it; I do. This is really special.”

Willis, an Army tech sergeant in Company G of the 2nd Battalion, 329 Infantry Regiment, 83rd Infantry Division, said he was on the beaches in Normandy on D-Day and jokingly thanked Mynatt in his remarks.

“I remember that day” and seeing the planes flying overhead, Willis said. “The very ground was trembling.”

Willis, who has written poetry and a book reflecting on his war experiences, said he was in the second wave of American soldiers storming the beaches of Normandy but saw most of his combat in the hedgerows there.

“We lost more people there than in any other battle — although the Battle of the Bulge was bad, too,” said Willis, who received a Purple Heart after being injured in the Battle of the Bulge (“shrapnel,” he said).

All in all, he said, his company lost more than 200 men in the hedgerows. Willis returned to Normandy a few years ago with his grandson and visited a cemetery where he found the graves of many of his fellow soldiers, he said.

He also fought at Luxembourg, the Hurtgen Forest and the Rhine River. But he developed a fondness for Paris, where he spent some time after the war before returning home to North Carolina, which makes the medal especially meaningful, he said.

“I’m thrilled — I never expected to receive this,” Willis said.

The Legion of Honor was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. In 2014, France began bestowing it upon U.S. veterans who risked their lives fighting in at least one of three main campaigns of the Liberation of France: Normandy, Provence/Southern France, and Northern France.

Last month, Corail presented the honor to six Georgia veterans.

“The U.S. and France have always stood shoulder-to-shoulder to promote the values of freedom and democracy that we together gave the world more than 200 years ago,” Corail said, noting the countries were allies during the Revolutionary War and World Wars I and II and remain so today, “fighting terrorism in its many forms across the globe.”

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©2017 the Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.)
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