World War II veteran Alfred Benjamin recently got a welcome surprise: The president of the French Republic appointed the 88-year-old Mashpee resident a chevalier of the Legion of Honor for his service in helping to liberate France during the war.
“I was surprised that I had personally gotten a [letter],” Benjamin said Saturday in a phone interview. “I’m one of many people who served in World War II.”
Benjamin said that on Friday he received a letter congratulating him for the honor, which was signed by the French ambassador, Francois Delattre.
“This award testifies to the president of the French Republic’s high esteem for your merits and accomplishments,” he said. “In particular, it is a sign of France’s infinite gratitute and appreciation for your personal and precious contribution to the United States’ decisive role in the liberation of our country during World War II.”
The Legion of Honor was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 to “acknowledge services rendered to France by persons of exceptional merit,” the ambassador wrote.
According to the US French embassy website, the Legion of Honor has been conferred on individuals “in all walks of life — the military, magistrates, administrators, and civil servants as well as men of distinguished achievement in the arts, fine arts, teaching, agriculture, trade, and industry.”
Benjamin said that France, which was occupied by Germany during World War II, has recently been issuing the award to many US veterans of the war. He said he heard that the French government is handing out these medals to improve French-American relations.
In 1944, Benjamin said, he served as a lead navigator in the Army Air Corps, 8th Air Force, which was based in England. He flew a total of 31 bombing missions, which he said are all seared in his memory.
On his 13th mission in September 1944, Benjamin’s plane was shot down over Belgium. Benjamin said he parachuted 10,000 feet out of the plane, dropping at 1,000 feet per minute. He was rescued by freedom fighters who kept him in a farmhouse before taking him to a local Catholic hospital to recover.
“I was lucky they got us and hid me away,” he said.
Benjamin received a Purple Heart from the US military for that mission, and was also awarded the Air Medal five times for his service.
Benjamin said he will probably receive the French award in Florida, where he has a second home. The French embassy will present him with the insignia in a formal ceremony.
“It’s quite an honor,” he said.