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World War II vets honored with French Legion of Honor at NC ceremony

By JASMINE GALLUP | The Sanford Herald, N.C. | Published: October 12, 2019

SANFORD, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — With a crowd of more than 100 on hand, French Consul General Vincent Hommeril stooped to pin a shining medal to Clay Wilson's lapel as the 101-year-old World War II veteran sat in his wheelchair inside the VFW Hall in Sanford on Friday.

The French Legion of Honor, the country's highest civilian distinction, was awarded to Wilson and fellow WWII veteran Ernest Earl Ballinger, 95, both of Sanford, during a ceremony at the Veterans of Foreign War Post 5631 on Webb Street.

"More than 70 years ago, Mr. Ballinger and Mr. Wilson risked their lives for the freedom of France and Europe. France is what it is today, a free and sovereign country, thanks to the bravery of such veterans," Hommeril said. "We are now decades away from WWII and yet we still pay homage to these veterans, to the legacy of their courage and the fight for freedom in a time of darkness."

The award, established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, is given to individuals who serve France and its ideals, said Hommeril.

Ballinger said the recognition was appreciated.

"It was an honor, but I thought of so many of my friends, of people that ... did the same thing I did, but somehow, they're not here," he said. "You don't realize what's going on until you come back in from a mission and out of 16 beds, 12 of them are empty."

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, less than 500,000 World War II veterans are still living.

Wilson's nephew, Chuck Daniel, said he was touched when he found out his uncle would be receiving the honor after all these years.

"It's kind of gratifying to know the French are still appreciative of what happened 75 years ago, and that they are trying to do all they can to acknowledge what the men and women that are part of our military did," he said. "It's just unbelievable what they went through. The things that they saw and did and experienced, and the sacrifices they made."

Wilson entered the U.S. Army Air Corps on Jan. 7, 1942, participating in his first combat mission nine months later with the 306th Bomb Group. In Feb. 1943, his B-17 was shot down by German fighter aircraft. Wilson and two other crew members parachuted out of the burning aircraft. Wilson evaded the Germans for several days before being taken in by several French families who helped him connect with the French underground.

Ballinger enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps on Oct. 26, 1942. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Ballinger helped put the first troops on French soil.

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