BECKET -- At a solemn and at times moving ceremony on Thursday at Town Hall, Wesley J. Souliere, former second lieutenant, 104th Infantry, 26th Division, Yankee Division, was awarded France's highest accolade, the French Legion of Honor, in recognition of his "eminent service to the Republic of France" during World War II.
"It brings me a great pleasure to decorate you with the Legion of Honor as a token of our eternal gratitude," said Hamon Gregory, deputy counsel of the French Consulate in Boston. "I want to assure you that the younger generation of French citizens have not forgotten your service to our country. They are very aware of what you did. And they will never forget."
Gregory told Souliere that he was born in Normandy, which was the site of the D-Day landings, "and it is very important to me to meet a U.S. soldier who come to liberate my country."
The Ordre national de la Legion d'honneur, established in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, is the highest decoration awarded by the French government. It is awarded primarily to military personnel, but is also given to politicians, entertainers and businessmen.
Souliere, 91, is a Springfield native who enlisted in the National Guard on Aug. 18 1937. His unit was activated in 1941 and assigned to the 104th Infantry. In September 1944, Sgt. Souliere's division landed in Cherbourg, France, one of the first units to ship directly from the United States to the French coastline without stopping in England.
Over the next 12 months, Souliere was involved in a series of bloody combat actions in which he served with distinction. On Oct. 31, he was awarded a Purple Heart after a convoy of trucks in which he was riding ran over several mines on a road near Nancy. Souliere suffered extensive neck and facial wounds.
A week later, however, he was back with his unit. On Nov. 11, 1944, Souliere was awarded the Silver Star for "gallantry in action" near Obreck, France. When his company came under fire from a German machine gun, Souliere crawled up under the machine gun nest and cleaned it out with a hand grenade.
As a result, a total of 60 German troops came out of a wooded area and surrendered.
The next day, he was awarded a Bronze Star. After seizing its objective, the town of Conthil, France, Souliere's platoon leader was killed. He subsequently took over command of the platoon and moved the troops, in the face of heavy fire, to a more advantageous position.
On Dec. 7, 1944, he earned a battlefield promotion to second lieutenant by the command of Lt. General George Patton.
Souliere served in the Ardennes campaign, one of the deadliest battles in the European Theater, the Wiltz River campaign and the Rhineland campaign. He was relieved from active duty on Oct. 23, 1945, a little more than a year after his arrival in France.
He and his family moved to Becket about 30 years ago. He worked as a custom home builder until his retirement.
On Thursday, surrounded by family, friends and fellow veterans, some of whom became emotional, Souliere stood respectfully while Gregory spoke. The deputy counsel pinned the medal on Souliere's chest, and kissed him on both cheeks as the crowd applauded.
Gregory had been about 90 minutes late, but the crowd seemed relatively calm while they waited.
"It was worth the wait," said Souliere's daughter, Delores Adkins after the ceremony.
To reach Derek Gentile:
or (413) 528-3660.