Two Sanford veterans will receive the French Legion of Honor, the country’s highest distinction, for their service in World War II.
Ernest E. Ballinger, Jr., 95, and Claiborne W. Wilson, 101, will be awarded the medal during a ceremony at the Sanford Veteran’s of Foreign War Post 563 on Oct. 11. The award, established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, will be presented by France’s consul general in Atlanta, Vincent Hommeril.
Ballinger will be on hand to receive the award, which is a red ribbon, upon which hangs a five-armed Maltese asterisk on an oak and laurel wreath.
French President Emmanuel Macron designates the recipients of the Legion of Honor, which is given to French citizens as well as foreign nationals who have served France or the ideals it upholds, according to a news release from the French Consulate.
Recipients include individuals who have contributed to the country professionally as well as veterans who risked their lives during World War II fighting on French soil, the release stated. Some of the best-known American recipients are Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur, and, as an institution, the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Ballinger enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps on Oct. 26, 1942. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, as a member of the Pathfinder Group, Ballinger helped put the first troops on French soil.
Among his missions during the war, Ballinger participated in airborne drops in the Netherlands and air drops across the Rhine River. He also regularly brought supplies to the front, returning with the wounded. In addition to his service with the Pathfinders, Ballinger served with the 439th Troop Carrier Group.
Wilson, now 101, entered the U.S. Army Air Corps on Jan. 7, 1942. In Oct. 1942, he had his first combat mission with the 306th Bomb Group. In Feb. 1943, his B-17 was shot down by German fighter aircraft. Wilson and two other crew members parachuted out of the burning aircraft. Wilson evaded the Germans for several days before being taken in by several French families who helped him connect with the French underground.
After several close calls and unsuccessful attempts to cross over into Spain, he finally reached Gibraltar and was sent back to Thurleigh Air Base in England. After returning to the United States, Wilson was assigned to intelligence at the Pentagon and provided survival training to crew heading into combat.
Veteran Don Schreiner was the one who put forward Ballinger and Wilson’s names for consideration.
“I’m just tickled pink about it, really really happy,” Schreiner said. “They were there to serve, and they didn’t look on it as anything special, but the rest of the world does.”
The Ceremony is at 1500 Webb St., Sanford.
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