France to WWII vet: ‘Merci’
The audience of family and friends gave him a standing ovation, veterans in attendance crisply gave him a military salute, and then the Honorable Guillaume Lacroix gave him a medal.
And the Maltese star hanging from a red silk ribbon presented Friday to 95-year-old Fort Wayne Army veteran Paul E. Ripley was a true mark of honor : the Legion of Honor, France’s highest distinction given for military and civilian service.
The medal, seldom presented in the United States, was awarded for service in World War II, when Ripley was a part of the 9th Army under Gen. George Patton during the Brest campaign. That battle freed the region in the far northwest of France, which held a straggling pocket of German Nazis after D-Day.
“This is one of those occasions when you hardly know what to say, except ‘Thank you,’” Ripley said, speaking slowly from a wheelchair.
He played down his wartime work keeping records of casualties in the 9th Army’s quartermaster section.
“The real heroes ... didn’t come back. Those of us who are here need to honor them every day for what they did and what they enabled us to do,” he said.
Lacroix, France’s general consul for the Midwest, pinned the medal to Ripley’s lapel. After the ceremony, he said it is part of a concerted effort by his country to honor the remaining few who aided France’s liberation during World War II.
He said he has presented four other Legion of Honor medals to American servicemen since becoming consul in 2017 : one in Chicago and three in St. Louis.
“We are looking for veterans who served in France and made specific service (contributions),” he said. “It’s not for everyone who served in France. It is special.”
Lauren McLean, one of Ripley’s granddaughters, said the honor was set in motion about five years ago, when she learned of the possibility while taking French lessons in Boise, Idaho, where she lives.
She obtained and passed on the required paperwork, but her grandfather didn’t do anything with it for “a couple of years,” she said. “He didn’t think he was worthy.”
But from her time as an exchange student in France, she said, “I realized how much they appreciate the Americans, even young kids my son’s age,” she said. “It’s just staggering.”
A native of Missouri, Ripley was sent from England to Rennes, France, on Aug. 22, 1944, less than three months after D-Day, in a decidedly secret operation to surprise remaining Germans, said his daughter Karen Stein of Syracuse, New York. She spoke before the medal was presented.
The 9th Army followed Patton across France to Arlon, Belgium, then moved with the 9th’s headquarters to Munchen Gladbach in Germany in March 1945. Ripley also was instrumental in establishing the 9th Army’s cemetery at Margraten, Holland : a site he was able to revisit with family members in 1991.
After the war, Ripley worked in sales in the horticulture industry and was instrumental in developing the idea for the in-house garden centers now found at retailers across the nation, Stein said.
He and his wife, Valeria Inez Adair Ripley, who died in October, were married for 71 years and raised their four children in Fort Wayne.
All the children : Stein; Janet Caron of Charlotte, North Carolina; and Jeanne Emilian and Roger Ripley, both of Fort Wayne : attended the ceremony in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Center along with many of the Ripleys’ 13 grandchildren and 34 great-grandchildren.
Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., and U.S. Rep. Jim Banks, R-3rd, sent representatives. Dennis Covert, president of Honor Flight of Northeast Indiana, was master of ceremonies; Ripley was a recipient of an Honor Flight, which takes veterans to visit the national military memorials in Washington, D.C.
Asked after the ceremony, Ripley said he didn’t serve in “a direct combat zone” and “didn’t have to shoot anyone” during the war. But he saw quite enough.
“I guess you could call it an honor (to serve). It was an obligation. It was something you had to do because they (the French) needed our help, and they had helped us in years past,” he said.
Lacroix echoed that sentiment in his remarks. He called awarding the medal to Americans a gesture of friendship among long-term allies. Each medal presentation must be approved by the French president, he said.
“We will always remember the Americans who fought and died for us,” Lacroix said, adding American aid saved France as a nation and a democracy.
“We will never forget,” he said. “I want to say thank you for your service from the bottom of my heart. Merci, monsieur.”
To that, Ripley had a two-word response at the end of his remarks.
“Vive la France,” he said.