'To us, you are a true hero'
BENNINGTON — For his service in France in World War II, Wallace "Wally" Mattison has been presented with France's highest civil and military distinction.
Mattison, a resident of Pownal and native of Bennington, was honored on Wednesday by Valery Freland, the Consul General of France in Boston. The ceremony took place at the Vermont Veterans Home. Mattison was incorporated into the 29th infantry division, 115th regiment in 1943, and served as a light machine gunner on the front lines of the Normandy invasion before participating in the Battles of Saint Lo and the Battle for Brest, during the latter of which he was shot while advancing on a German garrison. The bullet barely missed is spine. Upon his recovery in 1945, he continued to serve, participating in the capture of several German cities. He later served as a captain and acting chief of the Bennington Police Department.
Col. Al Faxon, chief operating officer of the Veterans Home, said that there had not been a Legion of Honor ceremony at the home during his tenure there, and he knew of no other recipients from Bennington. Freland said that Mattison was one of fewer than 10 Legion of Honor recipients this year in his district, which covers all of New England.
The French Legion of Honor was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. Mattison was honored as a chevalier, or knight, of the order. American recipients of the honor include many who have served France or the ideals it upholds, including Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as an institution. Today, there are about 93,000 members of the order around the world.
"It's such an honor to have this ceremony in our home," said Faxon. "Without our French allies, we probably would not have won the American Revolution... The French aided the colonists by providing military personnel, armaments, and loans. King Louis XVI approved financial assistance to the American colonists only four days after Benjamin Franklin and his comrades requested it. Could you imagine getting a bank loan in four days today?"
"If you see the king, tell him we said thank you," joked Faxon to Freland.
During the ceremony, Mattison was surrounded by several generations of his family. At first, he was determined to keep a straight face throughout, but after hearing words of praise from Faxon, State Rep. Mary Morrissey, U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, and Gov. Phil Scott, he finally broke down and began to cry. "You people," he said, "are too good to me." When Faxon offered him the opportunity to say a few more words, Mattison declined.
"The Mattison family has a long and proud history of dedicated service," said Morrissey. "It was just several months ago that we were honoring Wally's brother Erwin for his 60 years of service with the Bennington Fire Department. Today we honor Wally, a purple heart recipient, for his brave and honorable World War II military service in France."
"Wally's service-above-self model is well-documented, both by his military service to our country and then for his 40 years of service for our community, county, and state, as a police officer who rose through the ranks to become a captain and acting police chief," she said.
Morrissey also read the letters from Governor and U.S. Congressional delegation, who she said all expressed their heartfelt regret that they were unable to attend. Leahy asked that a flag be flown over the U.S. Capitol in Mattison's honor: That flag was presented to Mattison, after being folded in the ceremonial fashion by Faxon and Lieutenant Junior Grade Daniel Tifft.
Mattison will be honored by the Vermont State Legislature when it returns in January.
Finally, the time came for Freland to present Mattison with the award. Flanked by the U.S. and French flags, the consul general quoted French President Emmanuel Macron's words earlier this year, when he said, "It is a privilege to be speaking here before you today and I know who I owe that to. I owe it to all those who, a little over 70 years ago, rose up against a barbaric regime which seized my country, France. I owe it to the nations who heard the cry of these resistance fighters and who sent their children, from America, Africa, Oceania and Asia, to French shores to help.
"They did not all know what France was, but they knew that defeat for France also meant the defeat of the ideals that they shared, that they were proud of and for which they were willing to die. They knew that their freedom and their values depended on the freedom of other men and women living thousands of kilometers from them."
After Freland had finished reciting the lengthy list of honors and awards Mattison had received throughout his military career, Mattison added, "I got a good conduct medal, too!"
"We remember the ultimate sacrifice made by so many of your comrades, who are now laid to rest in France," said Freland to Mattison. "I know you are very modest, but to us, you are a true hero."
Derek Carson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @DerekCarsonBB on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 122.
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