He didn’t really know it, but Roy McWilliams had been waiting for this moment nearly all of his life.
In a special ceremony Saturday morning at the Oak Harbor Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7392 on Goldie Road, McWilliams received the French Legion of Honor medal — the French government’s highest recognition.
“More than 60 years ago, you rescued people you did not know,” said Jack Cowan, Honorary Consul of France, who came from Seattle to present the award.
“But you can be sure that those people have not forgotten you. We will never forget. You are forever France’s hero.”
McWilliams, who was born Richard Boe in Vancouver, British Columbia, was not eligible to volunteer for the U.S. Army when World War II broke out in 1941.
He was, however, drafted to the Army in San Francisco in 1943, and was trained as a ranger, then volunteered for parachute training in England.
He became a member of the 82nd Airborne and took part in the “Battle of the Bulge” and “Operation Varsity” in December 1944.
He went on to serve until December 1945, returning to the U.S. aboard the Queen Mary and taking part in the ticker-tape parade in New York City that was held to honor all the soldiers of WWII.
McWilliams received an honorable discharge from the Army on Jan. 23, 1946. He promptly enlisted in the U.S. Navy submarine service and served in the Korean War.
“I’ve been in war quite a bit,” McWilliams said. “I fought in France, Holland, Belgium. I received two Bronze Stars for heroism.”
McWilliams (who legally changed his name in honor of his stepfather) can add the French Legion of Honor medal to a long list of awards which, in addition to his two Bronze Stars, the Good Conduct Medal, the Presidential Unit Emblem, the American Campaign Medal, the Combat Infantryman Badge and the Honorable Service lapel button, World War II. All of them were on display Saturday on McWilliams’ WWII uniform.
“It is difficult for me to imagine your bravery and courage while fighting to save France and Europe from utter destruction,” said Cowan. “Courage and bravery are precisely the qualities Napoleon wished to reward with the creation in 1802, of the Legion of Honor.
“This medal expresses France’s deep gratitude for your actions of devotion, of honor and nobility, of duty and supreme selflessness,” he continued.
“I accept this award willingly,” said McWilliams. “But those people there, they were the real heroes.”
Cowan said presentations like the one Saturday are his favorite part of the job.
“In the beginning when we started doing this, we were presenting them to World War I veterans as a way for France to say thanks,” he said. “Now we’re losing our WWII vets so quickly. This is the best thing I get to do.”
“He’s waited a long time for this,” said McWilliams’ daughter, Peggy Gipson. “I’m just so proud of him. So many people aren’t aware of what (WWII) cost this nation, and to think he was able to be here in person to receive it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”