Joe Monteyne (left) and Ed Callas explain the symbolism of the French Legion of Honour decoration. They received the prestigious award for their part in the liberation of Nazi-occupied France after D-Day in 1944.

Joe Monteyne (left) and Ed Callas explain the symbolism of the French Legion of Honour decoration. They received the prestigious award for their part in the liberation of Nazi-occupied France after D-Day in 1944.

France pays tribute to local veterans

Canadian servicemen Ed Callas and Joe Monteyne were doing what they had to do in the spring and summer of 1944.

Canadian servicemen Ed Callas and Joe Monteyne were doing what they had to do in the spring and summer of 1944. They had no idea that a lifetime later they would receive one of the world’s legendary awards.

Callas and Monteyne are among Second World War veterans across Canada who received the French Legion of Honour in 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of France in 1944.

Monteyne joined the Canadian Air Force in Winnipeg in 1942 when he was 21, following up on an interest in the planes which he had seen as a boy.

“When I first saw a plane, I had no idea that 11 years later I would be flying over Germany at night as a navigator,” he said.

Callas joined the Canadian Air Force in Alberta at 17, after finishing high school. Within two months, he was overseas in England and went on to be gunner with the RAF.

Both men know the necessity of what they were taking part in.

“God knows how far Hitler would have gone without being stopped,” said Callas.

They were crew members in the bombing missions preparing for D-Day June 6, 1944. Callas took part in 33 2/3 missions (short missions were counted in fractions), a large number, non-stop for four months from May to July of 1944.  Long or short, each mission could be the last for  the servicemen. One mission over Mailly-le-Camp in May 3, 1944, saw 49 of 250 aircraft lost. Callas got a Distinguished Flying Medal for that.

Monteyne did one mission where his plane was dropping leaflets to give the French people accurate news of the war and encourage them that they had not been forgotten. He still has one of the leaflets with headlines that include, La Battle De Berlin Continue, and Le Chef de la Flotte Japonaise Est Tué. That was his first flight, a graduation exercise, with as much danger of being shot down as the bombing missions over Nazi-occupied areas that he later took part in. He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross.

“You had to be ready day and night to get in the bomber and go,” he said.

All the servicemen knew that something was going to happen in Europe as advance bombing increased but they did not know about how the invasion would take place until D-Day was underway.

Monteyne and Callas met at the Air Force Association about 25 years ago. Association membership director Duke Dawe told them about Canadians being awarded the Legion of Honour but veterans had to apply for it. They got their applications in and didn’t think much more about it until last fall when they got word that they had received it.

The Legion of Honour decoration, for all its mystique and glamour, arrived by Canada Post with a letter from the French ambassador to Canada, Nicolas Chapuis, thanking them for what they did for his country.

“When I first saw the package, I didn’t even know what it was until I opened it. It is an honour to have it. It represents the profound gratitude of France,” said Callas.

Monteyne said, “It is a distinction for us to be awarded this honour by France. I wish It had happened a lot sooner because there are a lot of servicemen who deserved it and they aren’t with us now. I hope that if there are any other veterans who are eligible for this that they will be able to get it.”

Both men continued their service to their country in civilian life with many years of volunteer work. They have both spoken about their war experiences in schools.

The Legion of Honour, Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur,  with the motto, “Honneur et Patrie,” is the highest decoration in France. It recognizes merit and bravery is usually awarded only to French citizens. The order was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 to replace orders of chivalry previously open only to the nobility before the French Revolution in 1789. It recognizes all citizens who qualify based uniquely on merit.

The award is a pendant which has a variety of symbolism, on a red ribbon. It is to be worn on a blazer for military, state occasions and for funerals. There is a miniature version for social formal wear.

The official presentation of the Legion of Honour decorations will be made at a ceremony through the Royal Canadian Legion Tuesday at Orchard Valley Retirement Residence at 1 p.m. with local dignitaries. There may be a representative of the French Embassy but this has not been confirmed.