There were tears even before the ceremony began. Yet as World War II veteran Peter Bellecy received his medal from the French Legion of Honor, he smiled and gave a rousing thumbs-up.
Bellecy, 96, was applauded by his family, military members and fellow residents of Chateau Pacific, the Lynnwood senior facility where he lives. He received the medal Nov. 14 after the Consulate General of France in San Francisco sent a letter saying he’d been appointed a Chevalier (Knight) of the National Order of the Legion of Honor.
“It is a sign of France’s infinite gratitude and appreciation for your personal and precious contribution to the Allies’ decisive role in the liberation of our country during World War II,” said the Nov. 6 letter signed by Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens, the Consul General of France in San Francisco.
Bellecy’s memories of his U.S. Army duty in Europe and North Africa have faded. “Gee whiz,” he said at the ceremony, when Donald Wischmann, quartermaster for Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2100 in Everett, pinned the Chevalier medal on his shirt.
He may have forgotten the details of all he did to help win the war, but his 60-year-old son — also named Peter Bellecy — made sure his dad’s service wouldn’t go unrecognized.
The younger Bellecy, of Edmonds, applied for the medal using his father’s military records. He arranged for the event, complete with a patriotic performance by Kamiak High School’s barbershop singing groups, the girls’ Starry Knights and the boys’ Do-Re-Migos.
As the teens sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” elderly men and women who live at Chateau Pacific placed hands over hearts. With their own memories of the war, many could be seen wiping tears from their eyes.
Bellecy’s son said his father, a high-speed radio operator, was part of the 12th Army Group, 302nd Signal Battalion. He served from March 1943 until March 1946. Service records list battles and campaigns he participated in: Northern France, Normandy, Central Europe, Rhineland, and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign.
“My dad and uncle and aunt used to do a San Francisco radio show. He learned music by ear,” the younger Bellecy said.
Overseas, that radio experience was put to use. The American soldier worked with British forces and with the French Resistance, transmitting radio messages intended to confuse the Germans, his son said.
Back home in California in 1946, he married his longtime sweetheart. They had dated for seven years. Peter and Lorraine Bellecy had three sons, Ernie, Ronn and Peter. He worked designing windows for apartment buildings. They spent much of their life in Seattle, where they lived in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood. Lorraine Bellecy died in 2014.
To be eligible for the medal, living veterans of all United States branches of the armed forces must have fought in at least one of four main campaigns of the liberation of France — Normandy, Provence, Ardennes or Northern France — between October 1943 and May 1945. An application form is submitted to the closest French Consulate, along with service records.
In June 2014, on the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion, the French president announced that the distinction would be awarded to all veterans who fought for France’s liberation in World War II. At least 4,020 veterans have been decorated, according to Matthias Carette, with the French Consulate in San Francisco.
Among speakers at the ceremony was Christian Gouilleux, 65, a native of France who now makes his home in Sultan. With a strong French accent, Gouilleux said his thanks to Bellecy come “from my heart — I will never forget.”
He’s too young to remember the war, but Gouilleux said his parents were caught in the middle of it. “My father had been freed from a concentration camp by the American Army,” he said.
Ernie Bellecy, 71, said his father doesn’t tell a lot of war stories. Those he has told involve disrupting the Nazis’ communications.
“Had he been discovered, he would have been tortured by the Gestapo,” and likely hanged or shot as a saboteur, said Dr. Christopher Beard, a friend of the younger Peter Bellecy who attended the ceremony. “He was not much older than the boys who sang today,” Beard wrote in a thank-you note to Kamiak music teacher Nancy Duck-Jefferson.
Washington Air National Guard Col. Andrew Todd, also an Everett Clinic doctor, linked past and present while speaking at the event. It’s up to historians to judge the merits of wars, said Todd, adding that “two truths emerge each time.”
“The first one is that every generation thinks that they know more than the previous generation. And the second truth is that airmen, soldiers, sailors and Marines of the United States have always stepped up to every challenge,” he said.
“Today’s military stands on the shoulders of giants such as Peter,” Todd said.