Four Limestone County World War II veterans fought the Germans across France with no thought of the honors that would someday come their ways.
Thursday, the Counsel General of France Denis Barbet presented the French Legion of Honor Decoration to the four aged warriors, Theo Calvin, Jack Hunter, Cal Bonner and Cliff Wilford, before 400 people in the Limestone County Event Center.
After the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner” and the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” by soloist Emily King of Madison, Barbet said throughout his childhood he observed the “deepest gratitude” of the French people for the American liberation of their country.
“I myself am very touched to decorate these four veterans of World War II,” said Barbet. “When I was a child, I visited the beaches of Normandy as well as the American military cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer, and I was able to measure the sum of courage necessary to cross the defense lines, a courage that was often paid for at the cost of life in order to liberate France and Europe.
“You embody this shared French-American history. You illustrate by your courage the friendship and shared values that so profoundly bind our two nations.”
Barbet spoke of Theo Calvin’s 1942 enlistment, after which he participated in the July 1943 Sicily invasion. Soon, Calvin shipped out for England where he prepared for the Normandy invasion as a gunner in the antitank company of the 395th Infantry. He landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, where most of the Allied casualties occurred.
In August 1944, Calvin participated in combat near Avranches in Normandy where he was seriously injured following German bombing.
“This did not stop you from helping the other 200 wounded soldiers before getting carried off, yourself, to a field hospital,” said Barbet.
After recovering Calvin returned to the battlefield near the Siegfried Line in November 1944. Calvin continued fighting in Belgium and Germany before returning home in Sept. 1945.
Now, adding the French Legion of Honor to his already awarded Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal and Distinguished Unit Badge, Calvin was asked what he felt about this latest honor.
“I’m honored, but I am also honored by another thing,” said Calvin. “The girl who was my escort on Honor Flight to Washington flew all the way from California today with her husband to see this.”
Calvin, a staff sergeant during WWII, has said in the past that the honors mean little compared to his pride in leading his command across Europe and “not losing a single man.”
Staff Sgt. William P. “Jack” Hunter entered the service on June 5, 1943, at the age of 17 and trained to be a gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress. He went on active duty in the Army Air Forces in March 1944 and was sent to the European Theatre of Operations in January 1945, joining the 384th Bomb Group of the 547th Bombardment Squadron.
“Between February and April 1945, you completed 25 missions as a tail gunner on a B016 in
Germany, France, Belgium and Holland,” said Barbet. “On one of these missions you flew over Bordeaux in April. Staff Sgt. Hunter, you were wounded in the left arm by bursts of flak while flying over Holland.”
“This means a whole lot to me,” said Hunter. “I didn’t know it was going to come. It’s just a beautiful medal.”
Private First Class Calvin “Cal” Bonner was inducted May 3, 1944, and assigned to Co. C., 1st Battalion of the 253rd Regiment when he was just barely 19 and joined the European Theatre in November of that year, landing in Marseille.
Bonner participated in battles in Northeast France, in Sarreguemines in Lorraine.
“While in France, near the German border, you were wounded by shrapnel in the calf on Dec. 21, 1944,” said Barbet. “You were sent to the 93rd Evacuation Hospital and later was decorated with the Purple Heart.”
In March 1945, Bonner was transferred to Headquarters Company of the 1st Battalion in the communications section. Following battles in France, he went on to participate in campaigns in the Rhineland and in Central Europe before returning to the U.S. in August 1945.
“This really means a lot to me,” said Bonner. “I never thought France would ever come through with this and I give them a lot of credit.”
Private First Class Clifford “Cliff” Wilford enlisted on Oct. 28, 1940, and joined the European Theatre on Sept. 5, 1941. After being stationed in Iceland, England and Ireland, Wilford participated in the Normandy invasion.
“You fought in Angers, and once the city was liberated, you left for Paris,” said Barbet. “Along the way, you helped liberate Chartres. Redirected at the last minute to Fountainbleau, about 40 kms from Paris, you were met with heavy resistance before successfully liberating this city. You went on to fight in Northeast France, near the city of Metz, in Lorraine, and crossed the German border in Sarrebruck.”
“Thank you, France,” said Wilford. “I am proud to have been a part of saving France. I love all people and want all to be as happy as we are in America and also happy we get to go now to France on vacation.”
Barbet concluded his presentation by saying, “You are true heroes. You will be our heroes forever. We the French, we will never forget what you did to restore our freedom. And today, we also remember the ultimate sacrifice of so many of your comrades who rest on French soil. They will remain forever in our hearts.”
After the ceremony, the staff and board of directors of the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives hosted a reception in the museum’s Powers Room and guided the French delegation, which included David Kibler, cultural attaché, around the museum exhibits.