WWII veteran Wesley Hart awarded France’s most prestigious honor

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PITTSBORO — Wesley Hart didn’t speak at the ceremony last Thursday during which he was awarded the French Legion of Honor.

He didn’t have to. The 102-year-old Chathamite’s service during World War II said plenty.

More than 100 people gathered at New Salem Church on Old Graham Road in Pittsboro to see the Chapel Ridge resident accept France’s highest decoration of distinction for those in military and civilian life.

To date only about 92,000 have received the award, which Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte himself introduced in 1802. Most Legion of Honor recipients, by far, have been French nationals. But Hart joined an exclusive list of American awardees, including such prominent figures as former Army General George S. Patton, former Army General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower and aviator Charles Lindbergh.

“As these veterans go on and age, (the award) is given less and less,” French Consul General Vincent Hommeril told the News + Record. “... The ambassadors, the French consuls abroad, are tasked to give these medals to foreign soldiers who landed in France in order to help liberate France, and it’s a real honor for us. It’s always a pleasure. As you can see, it’s a very good day for everybody.”

Hommeril, who is based at the French embassy in Atlanta, presented Hart with the medal for his service in France following 1944’s D-Day. Hart served with both the 44th Infantry and 102nd Infantry divisions on active duty from September 1942 through February 1946. He’s also a Bronze Star recipient for his service during the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944-45.

For his “heroic actions and extraordinary accomplishments,” Hommeril said, Hart “was nominated to the Legion of Honor by French President Emmanuel Macron with the rank of knight.”

To Hommeril, it was a personal honor to meet Hart and offer his gratitude.

“It’s special for me personally because I was born in Normandy,” Hommeril said. “So I know what the war did to France. And so for me, it’s a personal blessing to be able to do that because it’s a kind of recognition to these veterans who helped liberate French soil — and my soil. I’m really blessed to be able to do that professionally and personally.”

For Hart’s family, the award represents more than just his service in World War II, but recognition of the character and decency with which Hart has always lived his life.

“I’m just so happy for dad,” Lynne Dyer, one of Hart’s daughters, told the News + Record after the ceremony. “I think the outpouring of volunteers and the excitement from people that we don’t even know is so touching. Our dad has always been an outstanding person and has done so much putting other people first. And I mean, we need these kinds of things to celebrate together.”

About three years ago, Dyer and her sister, Kathy Wakeman, began the Legion of Honor application process after a fellow church-goer and Veterans of Foreign Wars member, Phil Bienvenue, tipped them off to the opportunity.

“Like most veterans, he didn’t want to talk about his experiences for a long time,” Bienvenue, a Vietnam War veteran, said of Hart. “But what I was saying to his daughters was, ‘This is too important. We can’t let this kind of history die.’”

The sisters gathered documentation to prove their father’s service history and filled out the lengthy application. They submitted it to the French consulate in Atlanta, and then they waited — for two years.

“We really didn’t think anything was going to come of it,” Wakeman said at the ceremony. “It’s surreal now to think we’re actually here and dad has gotten the recognition he deserves.”

His daughters always knew their father had served with honor. But for most of his life, Hart was silent on details of his time in war-torn Europe. After beginning the Legion of Honor application process, though, something changed. Now, more than a year later and with some help from Dyer and Wakeman, Hart has inscribed his story for all posterity in a 54-page, self-published book, “WWII: In My Words.”

In the concise and matter-of-fact style his daughters know so well, Hart recounts the story of his wartime experience: from his time in England at the major staging area for the June 6 invasion of Normandy, to his own landing on Omaha Beach shortly thereafter and his later role in the Battle of the Bulge.

Besides first-person history of the war’s major events, “WWII: In My Words” is filled with Hart’s insights, observations and personal recollections. In a section about the Battle of the Bulge, for example, Hart writes that his company was stationed near a railroad bridge in Düsseldorf, Germany, which had been destroyed. In the railroad yard “were three flatbed cars loaded with German rocket bombs.”

“Our General wanted to know if the bombs could be fired back at the Germans,” Hart writes. “It became my job as the Division Administration Officer to find a way to do just that. I enlisted the help of two other officers, and we found a building in the brickyard in where there was a bomb shelter. There was also a large bomb crater in the yard. The bombs were 18” in diameter and about four feet long and housed in a crate that had a hinged front end that opened. With wire and detonators, we were able to fire a single rocket bomb from the shelter. It went over the Rhine River just as we had planned.”

That sort of ingenuity and dedication — in the face of certain danger — typifies the man Hart’s daughters have known their entire lives. In her speech at Thursday’s ceremony, Dyer quickly deviated from the script she’d prepared, overcome with emotion.

“That’s just the kind of person dad is,” she said, “he’s always shared his many talents and he did so generously ... Oh, I could go on and on. There’s so much more to tell you about our amazing dad. He is certainly a man to be admired, a friend forever, treasured — a dad unmatched by any other. We love you dad for being our example, teaching us skills and loving us unconditionally.”

Other ceremony attendees included N.C. Senator Valerie Foushee, Pittsboro Town Manager Chris Kennedy, Chatham Sheriff Mike Roberson and a regional representative from U.S. Senator Thom Tillis’ office. Mike Fenley, a field representative for U.S. Senator Richard Burr, presented Hart with a flag flown over the United States Capitol to commemorate the army captain’s service.

“I’ve been to a lot of awards ceremonies,” Fenley told the News + Record after, “but I’ve never been to one of these. These are pretty rare.”

To Hart — who jokes that “at 40 I always said, ‘I hope I can live to be 70’” — the medal is a moving tribute, and he’s glad to have lived long enough to see it.

“I feel wonderful,” he said after the ceremony. “I never thought I’d be bestowed something like this.”

But even more touching, he said, was to see the many friends, family and members of the public who gathered in his honor.

“I’m just surprised they all came,” he said. “My two daughters, they did a great job of trying to get this thing coordinated ... I’m really grateful to them.”

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.


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