Three veterans from the Steinbach Legion have been awarded the rank of Knight of the French National Order of the Legion of Honour by the President of the Republic of France.
The award, given to Lloyd Lehman, Bennie Klick and John Owczar, is the highest national order of France and came with a letter (seen below) explaining the honour was given due to their courage and devotion during World War II which lead to the liberation of France.
Steinbach Legion President Bill Richards explains the criteria for the award is in-depth and required a three page application to be filled out. The application required a record of their entire WWII military career including any wounds and whether they were a Prisoner Of War, any official decorations already bestowed, post-secondary education, missions and battles in France and abroad, an honourable discharge form and more.
Richards says, along with the previous president, Keith Duncan, they located veterans who may have met the criteria and started the process of filling out the applications and having them sent for approval, noting this award was only available to those still alive and the President of France had to personally approve each award.
"The Knight of the Legion of Honour is a five armed cross with a V-shape cut out at the end of each arm, generally surmounted by a wreath of laurel leaves. There are 600 veterans in Canada who have received this award, as far as I know to date. We are very honoured to have these three in our area. They are all veterans and members of the Royal Canadian Legion here in Steinbach. So I am very proud to make this announcement."
John Owczar was a tank driver during the war and and says he was in France for about three weeks.
"From England we ended up in France, across the channel. There wasn't one building left. With all the tanks, there was no room for the tanks so we had to wait until there was enough room for the tanks. So we went through France and then we parked our tanks there. From there on we battled."
Owczar says there was quite the battle in Calais, France. He notes they kept on fighting and moved into Belguim which was better and then into Holland. "We liberated a lot of places. People were happy, church bells were ringing." He says during the war the Germans would put mines under the cobblestone streets so you couldn't see them.
"I had a lot of close shells. I had one spot where I lost a tank. So I got a new tank and the commander said to me, we're going on patrol now. I tried to start the tank and it wouldn't start. So he took the second tank and about ten minutes later we heard over the radio that the tank had been blown up, the driver killed. Took my place."
Owczar notes he is proud of the award he received and has told his grandson that one day all the medals he received will be his, to keep them in the family.
Lehman was in the infantry corps and tank regiment during WWII. He says it was an honour to have received this recognition and was surprised when the medal was delivered. Lehman was not in France during D-Day, June 4, 1944, but was part of the attack in France on July 25, 1944.
"What impressed me the most," recalls Lehman about the war. "Was when I was asked to go with the officer in command to take their surrender from the Germans."
Lehman's wife Shirley adds he had to unload some of the equipment from the bren gun carrier and drive 100 miles to accept the surrender. Along the way she says there were a lot of German equipment and ammunition.
During his six years in the war Klick was a truck driver with his elder twin brother. Klick's son Jack explains his father started as a home guard in Prince Rupert, British Columbia and his uncle then requested Klick be transferred to join him. Afterwards they were transferred to Nova Scotia where they received further training and were then sent to England, joining the 28th Canadian Armoured Division which was attached to the 4th Canadian Armour Brigade.
"They crossed over to Calais, France from England on the 28 of July. As an amoured brigade they went deep into France and at the Falaise pocket they lost 48 out of their 52 tanks. They regrouped and reequipped and turned back towards Calais, then went north through Belgium and through Holland and then into Germany."
Jack says as a truck driver his father and uncle hauled fuel, supplies and ammunition for the tanks and personnel attached to the tanks. He notes they would drop the load off and bring back the wounded and dead from the front, then start the process over again. He adds this job deeply effected them both forever.
"I was delighted," notes Jack, commenting on the award given to his father from the Republic of France. "The fact that another country would recognize what he had gone through. I was gratified that they would recognize his efforts to that level. I haven't presented it to him yet because when he does receive it, I want it to be very special. It should, hopefully, come from someone representing France. I feel that, that is what he deserves. I want it to be very memorable."
Steinbach Legion President Bill Richards says an official ceremony is being planned in April to recognize the three honoured veterans.
Steinbach War Veteran Remembers