Four Local WWII Vets Awarded Legion of Honour for Helping Liberate France from Nazis
LEOMINSTER -- It was the end of a story that began more than 70 years ago.
As much younger men, Staff Sgt. Santo DiSalvo and Cpl. Fernand Frechette of Leominster, Tech Cpl. Charles Sanderson of Lunenburg, and Staff Sgt. Rocco DiGloria of Methuen left for France, uncertain as to what awaited them in the midst of World Ward II.
On Wednesday, decades after their return, the four men were officially recognized for their participation in the liberation of France from Nazi Germany by being awarded the Legion of Honour by the French government.
“Today, I would like to pay tribute to these true American heroes. It was during one of the darkest hours in the history of France that these four men came to my country,” said Consul General of France Arnaud Mentre. “I want to personally convey to you the gratitude of the French government and the people of France for your efforts to restore our freedom. You are true heroes for the United States, and for France as well.”
The honor, Metre explained, is his country’s highest recognition and dates back to 1802.
“I was very surprised and I think it’s a great honor,” said Sanderson. “I feel that the honor should divided among some of the comrades who were with me when I landed over there because I wasn’t alone.”
Though U.S. military personnel who participated in the liberation of France are eligible for the award, Sanderson said he is the only American veteran he knows of - apart from Wednesday’s three other honorees - to be given the honor.
Many thanked local author Charley Valera for being responsible for getting the four veterans recognized. Valera, who interviewed each man for his book “My Father’s War: Memories of Honored WWII Soldiers,” took it upon himself to see if any of the people he wrote about qualified for the Legion of Honour. He then gathered the necessary documentation and submitted them to the office of the Consulate General of France in Boston for consideration.
“I’ve been trying to get the word out,” he said, adding that many WWII veterans are unaware that they are eligible. “Just last week I sent out the application for another WWII veteran.”
Alan Frechette, whose father, Fernand, was among those honored Wednesday, thanked Valera for his efforts.
“My dad was in his mid-80s before he even started talking about the war,” he said. “Whole stories would have been lost if it wasn’t for Charley and his work.”
According to Valera, all men served with distinction while in France.
DiSalvo was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for heroism in a firefight, as well as a Purple Heart for being hit by shrapnel in his left shoulder.
Frechette, who is fluent in French, was able to put his language skills to use when a young French woman told him that German soldiers were camped in a nearby barn. Using that knowledge, he was able to surprise the 30 soldiers and get them to surrender with only the help of two other men.
DiGloria participated in the invasion of Normandy and received two Purple Hearts while in France: one for surviving a bomb blast so strong that it dislodged fillings from his teeth, the other for enduring freezing conditions that led to his feet nearly having to be amputated.
Sanderson, who participated in five of the major battles to occur in France during the war, was recognized for preventing a ship he and several other soldiers were traveling in from sinking off the coast of Normandy.
“It’s such a true privilege to know their sacrifice is one that has not been forgotten in many places,” said Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs Francisco Urena, who also attended Wednesday’s ceremony. “We have not forgotten here, but you know the country that was liberated has not forgotten.”
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