July 18, 2003 – In a spectacular ceremony in the ancient village of Feterne, France, situated in the hills above Lake Geneva and with a spectacular view of Mont Blanc, in a wonderful display of friendship and gratitude, and great support and respect for Americans, by order of Jacques Chirac, President of France, General Chuck Yeager, American hero, World War II Fighter Ace, and first man to break the sound barrier, received the distinguished “Officer of the Legion of Honour” of France.
Yeager received this title for his personal courage and sacrifice during World War II and on behalf of his fallen comrades. A 12.5 victory fighter ace, Yeager has strong ties to France stemming from his World War II service. On March 5, 1944, during his eighth mission, a bomber escort sortie south of Bordeaux, France; he was shot down by German fighters and parachuted to safety. He spent the ensuing several weeks with the French resistance, teaching them how to use explosives to blow up bridges before crossing the Pyrenees for Spain.
The French Air Force Band played both the US anthem and the French anthem as General Vingiguerra (name literally means “war victory”), French Air Force pinned the red rosette ribbon signifying Officer of the Legion of Honour on Gen Yeager. A crowd of 10,000, including many of the Maquis, was there to witness this incredible event where Colonel Bud Anderson, Yeager’s friend during their flying days in World War II and beyond and also an Ace, and Bob Price who was the radio operator and a gunner on Denny Boy, the US plane that was shot down after completing its mission over Munich and landed in Feterne in 1944. The French underground helped the whole crew to safety.
General Vingiguerra knighted General Yeager tapping on each shoulder with his dagger. The French General then sheathed the dagger, he thought, and gave Gen Yeager the kiss on each cheek as is customary. As Gen Vingiguerra, approached Col Anderson to confer on him the lesser, honorable rank of “Knight”; Gen Yeager quietly, smoothly stooped down, picked up the dagger from the ground, and handed it to Gen Vingiguerra just as Gen Vingiguerra was reaching for it in his empty scabbard. At the reception later, Gen Vingiguerra was most appreciative and somewhat surprised, let’s be honest that an American had been so diplomatic and gracious and saved the French General any embarrassment, and confessed, “I didn’t know I had missed the scabbard.” Victoria Yeager was translating the remarks to her husband. Gen Yeager’s response with that special gleam in his eye and mischievous smile, was, “I couldn’t help but notice it was sticking out of my foot!” When Victoria translated, the French General was taken aback and you could see was reversing all his good thoughts, when he saw the Yeagers were laughing and clearly good-naturedly teasing him. The French love this sort of humor and so you could see Gen Vingiguerra’s great esteem of these unusual Americans increased even more.
In his public remarks after the Award, Yeager thanked all for the distinguished award and especially thanked General Vingiguerra for not pinning the Medal to his skin. He went on to mention his secret trip to Lake Annecy, France in December 1944 to instruct on how to get Evadees out of Switzerland and France.
In January 1945, Yeager and Anderson on their last mission were spares and so instead of returning to base, went on a tour of Europe where Yeager showed Anderson Lake Annecy and Switzerland. On that trip, Yeager dropped his fuel tanks on Mont Blanc and Anderson shot them. When they returned to base, they found they had missed the biggest air fight of the war – their squadron shot down 56 German planes that day.
Hearing General Yeager’s war stories, the crowd roared. The French do not forget that except for the Americans, they would be speaking German.
USAF Honor Guard.
French Honor Guard.
Following are some of the photographs of General Yeager and his friends taken during and after the event.