[Article Published in Irish Times : http://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/irish-second-world-war-veteran-given-france-s-highest-honour-1.2030261]
Pat Gillen was among first wave of troops to invade Sword beach on June 6th, 1944
Pat Gillen, with his children – (left to right) Mary, Robin, Gerard and Patrica – receives the Legion d’Honneur from French Ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault (centre) at the Mercy Hospital in Cork. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA One of Ireland’s last surviving D-Day veterans has dedicated his award of France’s highest honour to his fellow countrymen who fought in the second World War. Pat Gillen, (89), who was among the first wave of troops to invade Sword beach on June 6th, 1944, has been recognised with the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur in recognition for his role in the landings. The honour was bestowed upon him by French Ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault at the Mercy Hospital in Cork where he is being treated for ill health. Mr Gillen said he felt “thrilled and immediately unworthy” on getting a letter from the French embassy in recent weeks to notify him of the award.
“In accepting this award, other brave Irish men, thousands of young men, who lost their lives in pursuit of peace remain in my memory,” he said. “This award is as much theirs as mine.”
During an emotional ceremony within the hospital, Mr Gillen told his family, Mr Thebault and hospital staff that when he landed 70 years ago it was the first time he had put feet on French soil.
“By the grace of God, I survived to be here today while many of my friends sleep in the fields of France, ” he added. “I feel both extremely honoured and humbled in receiving the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur conferred on me by President (Francois) Hollande and the government of France.”
Mr Gillen, whose father and two uncles fought in France during the first World War and who lost two cousins there in the second World War, had planned to return to Normandy this year for the 70th anniversary. However, he said he was “grounded” by ill health. Instead, he penned a poignant message to his fallen comrades on a laurel handmade by his daughter Mary – decorated with poppies and an Irish tricolor ribbon – with the tribute: “In memory of all commandos from the emerald island who lie in sleep in Normandy fields.”
The rifleman, now a father of four and grandfather of 12, was in 6 Commando, a unit tasked with securing the strategically important Pegasus Bridge near Caen. More than half of his brigade were casualties in vicious assaults by German forces.
He was never injured despite, like all commandos, wearing his green beret in a six mile trek from Sword beach to Pegasus through marshland, sniper positions, a bogus minefield and several weeks in the trenches at Saulnier.
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