In France, there is no greater distinction than the Legion of Honor. Since 2005, that medal has been extended to American World War II veterans as a symbol that their service to France over a half-century ago will never be forgotten. WGLT’s Daniel Hajek visits one Central Illinois veteran just before his ceremony to receive this prestigious honor.
Joe Panno sits in his kitchen in Streator preparing a short speech for tonight about his time fighting in France. As difficult as it is for him to think about the war, he goes back many years to when he was a 22 year old drafted into the 29th Infantry Division: Company M, heavy weapons, manning mortars and .30 caliber machine guns.
“And we backed up the riflemen. The riflemen are definitely right on the front lines and we were definitely right behind them,” he says.
He arrived in France in June of 1944 following the D-Day invasion. Panno was sent into the battle for Saint-Lô in North Western France, fighting in swampy fields, steep hills and the infamous Normandy hedgerows.
“And we had no idea what was on the other side of that hedgerow,” says Panno. “So we were fighting possibly within ten feet of the enemy at times.”
He says it was relentless. The victory at Saint-Lô cost more than 15,000 American casualties.
“Sure, you’re scared. There’s no question about it. But I think we were fighters, all of us. We wanted to accomplish our mission and those that got it, got hit. We just figured we gotta keep going.”
“Do you ever find it difficult to talk about the war?” I ask.
“Yeah, very much so,” he says. “My friends call me and say how come you never talk about it?”
“And what do you say?”
“You know, it’s funny. You don’t think about that anymore. About the war. You get married, you have children, you don’t dwell on the negatives anymore.”
But now, 68 years after the end of World War II, Panno will receive the French Legion of Honor commemorating his exceptional service in France and acknowledging his fight for France’s liberation.
“It’s very prestigious, in fact it’s the highest honor. There is no higher honor than the Legion of Honor in France,” says Consul General Graham Paul from the French Consulate in Chicago. He says over 100 Legion of Honor medals are awarded to veterans each year in the Midwest alone. The consulate finds eligible veterans, sends an official form to the French Embassy in Washington D.C., they review it, then send it to Paris.
“If everything is fine, it ends up on the table of the French President who will sign the decree,” says Paul.
Meaning President Francois Hollande reviewed Joseph Panno’s form himself, saw his name, and officially approved of Panno to receive the Legion of Honor.
“It’s a personal decision.”
A decision Paul says can only be made by the President himself.
“The French people will never and shall never forget. And a way to show that is to bestow this highest honor to the American veterans,” he says.
Back in Panno’s kitchen, he reaches for the letter he received from Consul General Paul.
“It’s a great honor and privilege to present you with the Knight of the Legion of Honor Medal. More than 65 years ago, you gave your youth to France and the French people. Many of your fellow soldiers did not return, but they remain in our hearts,” he reads.
At 92 years old, he says this award comes as an incredible surprise.
Panno takes a deep breath. “I’m just amazed by it. I can’t really describe it.”
Later that evneing, Panno arrives at Streator’s City Hall, greeted by a small group of family, close friends and fellow veterans.
“I think everybody is aware that Joe is a proven hero,” says Mayor Jimmie Lansford as he addresses the audience. “His awards are Bronze Star Medal, Combat Infantry Man’s badge, four bronze campaign stars. He has three overseas bars.”
Lansford is handed a maroon box, which he slowly opens to unveil the French Legion of Honor to the stoic Panno.
“And now it is my privilege to present this French Legion of Honor to you, Joseph.”
He carefully pins the medal to Panno’s jacket.
“Thank you very much,” says Panno. “I would also like to share this honor with all the veterans. And those who fought and didn’t make it home.” He grasps the podium and fights back tears. “They are the heroes. God bless all of you and God Bless America.”
“To bestow upon him the Legion of Honor, is a way to show our gratitude,” says Paul. “And I will say our eternal gratitude.”
Paul says Panno now joins the ranks of famous French philosophers, authors, politicians and scientists, American Generals George S. Patton and Douglas MacCarthur, and the man who established the French Legion of honor in 1802: Napoleon Bonaparte. Joe Panno is in good company.