Journey to top medal no movie scene for WWII vet

Published 1:13 am Saturday, October 1, 2011

HATTIESBURG — More than 67 years since the day he waded ashore on the beaches of Normandy, Jack Hearn stood on stage at the University of Southern Mississippi and received the Legion of Honor medal, the most prestigious award from France.

“I had to go a long way to get this,” the 90-year-old from Vicksburg said Thursday, pointing to the medal pinned on his jacket. “I’m very excited and proud, and it means a lot to my family.”

Since 1802, the medal has recognized people for personal merit and service to the French Republic. Hearn qualified for the award because of his military service during World War II and the liberation of France.

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Hearn was part of the 81st Chemical Battalion that came under fire on the beaches of Normandy in 1944, but he managed to get mortars and other equipment across the beach and to Paris, making it safely to the Siegfried Line, a German line of defense.

Hearn on Thursday was surrounded by about 35 family members and friends who came to support him.

“This has been a long time coming,” said Pam Antoine, Hearn’s granddaughter. “People don’t remember or think about things like this anymore — it’s something you see on the movies. This wasn’t a movie for him.”

Recipients of the award are named by the President of the Republic of France, Nicolas Sarkozy. Hearn was notified that he won a few months ago.

“I’m relieved that this day is here,” Hearn said. “Everyone was so excited.”

Hearn is a member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, and was nominated for the medal by a friend who saw the qualifications listed in the Purple Heartbeat, the organization’s newsletter. Documents such as his discharge papers and a book detailing the events of his service were a part of the packet sent in for Hearn to be considered for the award.

“I’m very proud,” said Charles Tolliver, commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart No. 680 in Vicksburg. “This is a big deal, and it feels good to see someone get something they really deserve.”

Hearn was one of three from Mississippi to receive the medal, which was presented by Keltoum Rowland, Honorary Consul of France to Hattiesburg.

“This is the highest honor awarded by France,” Rowland said. “This is truly a moment in history, and it’s so important to honor these veterans and the sacrifices they made.”