Bob Bearden, U.S. Army 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment
Recently in Houston, the French Government presented the French Legion of Honor Medal to World War II veterans who served in France during the war. Among the group of honorees were 15 Texas veterans.
The medal, France’s highest distinction, was originally established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 to recognize French citizens who had demonstrated significant merit in both civilian and military life. Prior to the Legion of Honor, similar awards in France were reserved exclusively for military officers or members of nobility. The award was extended to include foreign nationals who had demonstrated exemplary service to France along with allies who had served on French soil.
One Texas veteran honored in the recent ceremony was of Belton, Texas, who served in World War II as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division’s H Company, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Bearden, who fought on D-Day, was captured by the Germans and underwent seven months in captivity. In a recent interview with the Killeen Daily Herald, Bearden recalled his experience as a German POW, including five days spent in a 20-by-8-foot boxcar with 50 other prisoners, during which they were denied water, food, sunlight and the use of a latrine. During their transport from Germany to Paris, the train came under fire by British and American forces who were unaware it was carrying American POWs.
“It was a real harrowing experience to know that you’re alive by the grace of God, no other way,” Bearden said. Once they arrived in Paris, Bearden and roughly 5,000 fellow prisoners were marched along the Arc de Triomphe. Bearden recalls the march as “his lowest emotional stage” and remembers looking up to see a man watching the procession from behind a door.
“He was looking at us prisoners being herded along, and I just kept looking at him; and all of a sudden, he was looking around to see that no German was looking at him and (he put his fingers up to spell) V for victory,” Bearden told the Killeen Daily Herald. “It’s like he had given me a shot of some kind of
juice or something. Boy, I just all of a sudden felt rejuvenated completely and like, ‘Hey, it ain’t over yet.’”
After being liberated by the Russians on January 31, 1945, Bearden spent the next several months wandering, following Russian supply lines and eventually making his way to Italy, where he was finally given passage back to the U.S. on a ship destined for Boston. Each year, Bearden marks his personal “Liberation Day,” January 31, in remembrance of fellow soldiers who did not return home: “That’s the one thing I remember every year,” he said. “I try to eat a special steak or drink a special beer or something and think about those guys who didn’t have that pleasure.”
The ceremony honoring Bearden and 14 fellow Texas veterans took place at Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base on February 1st. Sadly, three of the Texas honorees were not present to receive their award: Stephen Bodnar and Bruce Davis could not attend because of illness, and Douglas Grogan had passed away only three days prior to the ceremony.
On hand was Texas’ Consul General of France Monsieur Frederic Bontems as well family members, friends, and soldiers from the Army Reserve’s 75th Training Command. With a declining population of World War II veterans, the recent ceremony at Ellington Field was one of the largest of its kind in many years.
I know many Texans join me in expressing our humble gratitude to these brave individuals who made great sacrifices to preserve our freedom. Let us do all we can to cherish these members of our Greatest Generation who remain with us today and always strive to honor the legacy of those who have gone before them.
By U.S. Sen. John Cornyn
Sources: Consulate General of France in Houston; U.S. Army; Killeen Daily Herald