Island veterans earn French Legion of Honour for wartime service

When Duncan’s William Heil accepted a French Legion of Honour medal this week, it was in recognition of the many who didn’t survive the horrors of the Second World War.

“I’m doing this in their memory,” said the 98-year-old, who commanded a Sherman tank during the war. “They were real fine guys, all these young Canadians, and I was with them all the way. I had to bury a few of them.”

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Heil is one of 486 Canadian veterans — and one of four Islanders so far— whose heroism during the 1944 D-Day invasion of Normandy is being lauded by France with the medal program, marking 70 years since the pivotal Second World War operation.

Heil and 94-year-old Alan Bodman of Colwood both received the French Legion of Honour this week at a Victoria gathering. James Edwards was given a medal at a similar event in Comox, and Saanich-Gulf Islands MP Elizabeth May will be hosting a Dec. 5 ceremony to honour Charles E. Goodman for also receiving the prestigious award. More could also be eligible.

The awards — the equivalent of the Order of Canada — are richly deserved by Canadian veterans, said Jean-Cristophe Fleury, France’s consul general in Vancouver.

“It’s very important because now we have a new generation, and they are certainly not aware enough of what Canadians have done for us,” Fleury said. “The blood of Canadians is on our soil.”

France worked with the Canadian government to identify 486 living veterans who were involved in D-Day and are eligible for medals. Until the medal program began, only 20 Canadians had ever received the Legion of Honour, among them former governor general Michaelle Jean and filmmaker David Cronenberg.

Bodman, who still lives in the house he built in Colwood almost 70 years ago, was joined by all 13 of his children at the ceremony.

He said he felt “cool, calm and collected” when receiving his award, the same demeanour that served him well in the war. “It’s a terrific honour to accept it.”

Bodman called the young soldiers in the war “a lot of schoolboys and schoolgirls” dedicated to a cause. “We didn’t want England to be overrun, no way.”

He said he gave four years of his life to the army, two of them in Europe.

“We gained peace, and that’s what we endeavoured to do.”

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