John Bellefontaine salutes as cars drive by his home in Leesburg, Fla., on Sept. 6, 2020. Bellefontaine, one of the last surviving members of 551st Parachute Infantry Division, died last month at 98.

John Bellefontaine salutes as cars drive by his home in Leesburg, Fla., on Sept. 6, 2020. Bellefontaine, one of the last surviving members of 551st Parachute Infantry Division, died last month at 98. (Stephen M. Dowell, Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — He was an immigrant who ended up fighting in the bloodiest American battle of World War II and was one of the few members of his unit to survive. A man short in stature but large in personality, he lived a long, happy life with his family after retiring from his much-decorated service.

John Paul Bellefontaine of Leesburg, Fla., died May 28, just one day before Memorial Day. He was 98 years old and believed to be one of the last two living members of his unit.

“I’ve never seen anybody like him,” his daughter Deborah Fike said.

“He’s a little bitty guy and very, very tough,” she added. “But gentle too, at the same time, you know, and he is very much a perfectionist. Like everything has to be done, right. He couldn’t take anything out of place.”

Born Jean Paul Louis LeBlanc Bellefontaine on March 2, 1925, he was a native of Montreal, Canada. His family immigrated to America in 1942 when he was 17. According to Fike, the family left Canada for Florida simply because it was too cold, ultimately making St. Petersburg their new home.

Disagreements with his father led Bellefontaine to enlist in the military in 1943, only one year after arriving in America.

Bellefontaine wanted to be a pilot but, at around 5 feet tall, he was disqualified from pilot training. He instead enlisted in the U.S. Army, training to become a paratrooper, and was assigned to the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion.

On April 21, 1944, Bellefontaine began a 33-day voyage to Italy aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, which came under assault from German bomber planes.

That August, the 551st participated in Operation Dragoon, the Allied landing in southeastern France, eventually liberating the city of Nice. Due to his upbringing in Montreal, French was Bellefontaine’s first language, so he was made a translator for American forces while in France and Belgium.

In December, Bellefontaine became embroiled in the bloodiest battle the United States was involved in during the war — the Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s desperate last-ditch surprise counteroffensive through the Ardennes Forest between Belgium and Luxembourg meant to stave off defeat on the Western Front.

The 551st was sent to capture the German-held Belgian village of Rochelinval without any support, a mission it successfully completed at the cost of most of the unit’s remaining lives.

Although Bellefontaine was one of the lucky men to survive the battle, he suffered lifelong health complications to his feet due to the deep snow, including the development of gangrene toward the end of his life.

In early 1945, the remaining members of the 551st were absorbed into the 82nd Airborne Division. Bellefontaine remained in the Army, serving a total of 20 years, ultimately achieving the rank of Chief Warrant Officer.

“He was very gentle, but he was very much a bossy person,” Fike said. “Like he’s used to ordering everybody around. So being a Chief Warrant Officer, he likes to tell us all orders. He wouldn’t wait for me to take the trash out. I said, ‘Dad, five minutes, give me.’ He wouldn’t wait five minutes. He would start to do it on his own.”

He received numerous accolades, including the Bronze Star of Valor and the Presidential Unit Citation, the latter of which was awarded to all members of the 551st in 2001.

Bellefontaine was waiting to receive the Legion of Honor medal from France when he passed.

His eldest son and child, Yannick Bellefontaine, said his father did not like to talk about his service at first.

“He was proud of what he accomplished,” Yannick said. “But at first when I talked to him about wanting to be honored now he said, because he was humble, ‘I don’t know why they want to honor me. You know, I was just over there. It’s not like my choice really.’ But I said, ‘Well, Dad, you know, you sacrificed a lot for the rest of us here.’”

After the war, while still stationed in France, John met his first wife, Henriette, a native of France. He and a friend were driving down a road when they noticed two women: Henriette and a friend, who had missed a train they intended to catch. He and his friend offered to take the two women to their destination.

The two married and had three children: sons Yannick and Steve and daughter Deborah.

After his retirement, John became an electronic communications engineer in the Army Civil Service, with his education being provided for under the GI Bill of Rights. One of his posts was at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey.

John had multiple health problems in his later years, including multiple forms of cancer.

“The guy couldn’t walk for the past 10 years,” Fike said. “He’s been driving around a little scooter. He had prostate cancer, bladder cancer and had three hip replacements. The last hip exploded. He had MRSA, he had sepsis. I said, ‘Dad, you’re a cat with nine lives.’ I mean, this man was such a fighter.”

John ultimately died due to prostate cancer.

Despite his many ailments, John persevered through them with his signature stubbornness.

“That contributed to a long life,” his second son Steve Bellefontaine said. “He never really stopped moving. He never took naps, even in his 80s, he rarely took a nap. So he was constantly moving. That constant desire to keep moving and a very sharp mind, he remembered a lot of things from even in his 80s, early 90s, things from when we were younger. So he kind of had the brain power, the will, the desire to live and a little bit of a stubborn streak.”

Steve fulfilled his father’s dream of becoming a pilot, serving in the Air Force. After he retired, he became a pilot for American Airlines.

In 2018, American partnered with the Gary Sinise Foundation, established by actor and veterans advocate Gary Sinise, who portrayed Lieutenant Dan in “Forrest Gump,” in the Soaring Valor program, meant to transport World War II veterans to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.

Steve volunteered to serve as a pilot in the program so he could personally transport his father to go to the museum alongside 39 other veterans.

“I told the Foundation and American that I wanted to be the guy that flew them over and have them, you know, bring my dad,” Steve said. “So it’s officially 39 veterans and my dad, which you know, he was invited only because I was flying them over there. So, yeah, it’s an opportunity that I kind of took to be able to not only take those guys, but take my dad over there. It was one of those bucket lists that I felt like that opportunity I couldn’t pass by so I’m glad I did it.”

At the event, John was able to meet Sinise, who wrote a letter to John’s family after his passing.

With his typical stubbornness, the elder Bellefontaine initially did not want to go on the trip. But after he went, he asked Steve if he could go again.

Yannick described his father as a simple, hardworking man.

“After the experiences that he had as a child, the facts of the war, going through all that, I think he was looking to live, enjoy more out of life, just simple things,” Yannick said. “He was a dad who worked very hard to provide for his family. Somebody who just didn’t have a bad bone in his body, you know, never, never judged people, never gossiped about people, anything like that.”

Yannick spoke about one of his favorite family traditions with his father.

“When he was in his 80s and early 90s, I lived in South Carolina and Tennessee and he lived in Florida,” Yanick recalled. “We would meet halfway like in Pooler or Savannah. He would drive 3 1/2 hours at 90 years old, meet us for lunch for an hour or two, and then he turned around, go back home.”

John loved animals, especially dogs, and cars. He purchased a new car every year, usually after trading the previous one in. Fike believes he bought around 60 during his lifetime, she said. He also loved to make art.

John is survived by Henriette and his second wife, Patricia; his three children; his stepdaughter Anne Marie; his 10 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

The funeral is to take place at Allen J. Harden Funeral Home in Mount Dora, Fla., on the morning of June 23. John will be buried with honors at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell that afternoon.

©2023 Orlando Sentinel.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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