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WWII veteran from SD awarded France’s highest distinction for his heroism while serving in Europe

The French Legion D’Honneur, the highest decoration in France, lies on a table at a French National Day celebration in Tampa, Florida, July 14, 2014. Four World War II veterans received the medal for their service during the war. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Ned T. Johnston/Released)
September 02, 2019

If not for Orville “Bert” Lerew’s courage and leadership while fighting the Axis powers in Europe during World War II, France wouldn’t have regained independence.

That’s why Lerew was awarded France’s highest distinction for his participation in the liberation of France during a ceremony Saturday in Faulkton.

Guillaume Lacroix, with the Consult General de France, expressed his country’s and his own personal gratitude for Lerew’s bravery and heroism before awarding the Cresbard native with the French Legion of Honour award.

“To me it is a great honor to be here with you in Faulkton for the first time in my life to share this moment with you and to express on behalf of the French people our gratitude. Our gratitude is forever because Mr. Lerew and his fellow service men and women changed the destiny of France forever,” Lacroix prefaced.

“I’m saying this on behalf of the French people, but mostly on behalf of my family. My grandfather on my dad’s side, like hundreds of thousands of French soldiers, was taken as a prisoner of war in 1940. He spent the rest of the war in east Germany as a POW. My grandmother raised two children on her own without their dad. My grandmother passed, but I had the privilege to know her and be told by her the memories of the war. The memories of the occupation by foreign nation. The memory of humiliation, the memory of pain, the memory of separation,” Lacroix said.

“But also the memory of victory because Mr. Lerew won the war. He won the war for us and for our freedom and he restored my country’s independence,” he said.

“Without Mr. Lerew, the French flag would not be here. And this is so important for us to recognize that. They restored our independence, but also restored our dignity. And we will never forget that.”

Founded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the National Order of the Legion of Honour recognizes eminent service to the French Republic.

“Since then, it has been my country’s highest distinction,” Lacroix said to a packed church.

Lacroix noted the various milestones in Lerew’s life and how he grew up on a farm near Cresbard where he earned the nickname “Tarzan.”

“When I go back to France, I will say I met with Tarzan — in South Dakota,” Lacroix joked.

Lerew went into active service in the U.S. Army in 1942 when he was only 20.

He joined Troop “D” 87th Cavalry, 7th Armored Division, also known as the “Ghost Division,” Lacroix said.

“On June 7 of 1944, you left New York for England on the Queen Mary with your entire division — 50,000 men aboard. You moved up from private staff sergeant and platoon leader at the age of 22 where you were in charge of 29 men. Your mission was to direct crew in making recognizance in advance enemy territory to gather information, an extremely risky and important mission,” he said.

Lerew participated in the Northern France, the Rhineland, the Ardennes and Central Europe campaigns. He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart with a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, the American Campaign Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Medal with four Bronze Service Stars, two Overseas Service Bars, the Honorable Service Lapel Button WWII, the WWII Victory Medal, and the Expert Badge with Carabine Bar.

“On Oct. 4, 1944, the enemy launched an offensive, catching the calvary by surprise. Four days later, you were injured by a hand grenade. You continued to support to British troops,” Lacroix noted. “On Jan. 26 of 1944, you were injured a second time by a metal fragment from a mortar and, once recovered, you rejoined the 87th,” he said.

“Tarzan, or Superman?” Lacroix joked.

“The division played a significant role in the Battle of the Bulge. In February of 1945, you were engaged on the Belgian-German border. In September of 1945, you returned to the States and were honorably discharged,” Lacroix continued.

“I’m speaking on behalf of the dead and the generations to come. I’m speaking from the bottom of my heart — thank you, Mr. Lerew,” Lacroix said before presenting the award to Lerew, which was met by a long applause and standing ovation.


© 2019 the American News