CONYERS – On Monday, Nov. 11, America honored its veterans on the 100th anniversary of Veterans Day, which began in 1919 as Armistice Day to mark the signing in France of the armistice between Allied forces and Germany on Nov. 11, 1918, signifying the end of World War I. France still celebrates Armistice Day.
On Tuesday, Nov. 12, Wade Hayes, a World War II veteran who now lives in Conyers, was personally honored by France, which presented him with the Legion of Honor, France’s highest merit, during a ceremony at the Remington House.
The Legion of Honor is bestowed upon French citizens as well as foreign nationals who have served France or the ideals it upholds, including individuals who have contributed to the country professionally, as well as veterans such as the Americans who risked their lives during World War II fighting on French soil.
Hayes, 97, was born in North Carolina but grew up in South Carolina. He joined the U.S. Army on April 9, 1943, and took part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944. As a rifleman — platoon sergeant of the Fifth Army Company B 2nd Infantry — Hayes participated in the Normandy, Northern France and Ardennes-Rhineland-Central Europe military campaigns. Most notably, he participated in D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. Hayes was wounded two times, in France and in Germany.
Hayes received the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater Campaign Medal with one silver star, the Purple Heart with one bronze oak leaf cluster, the Bronze Star and the Victory medal, among others.
After the war, Hayes worked for NASA in Florida and raised a family. His son and daughter, along with two grandchildren, were present Tuesday when he received the Legion of Honor from Vincent Hommeril, the consulate general of France in Atlanta.
“This year is special in that it marks the 75th anniversary of the landings at the beaches of Normandy on D-Day in June 1944, when over 155,000 American, British and Canadian forces landed at five sites along the heavily fortified coast,” said Hommeril in his presentation to Hayes. “Today, remember that the French-American friendship is bound in blood and that our two countries owe each other their very existence as free nations. We remember that from the U.S. revolutionary war to the battlefields of World War I and the beaches of Normandy, the United States and France have always stood shoulder to shoulder to defend the values of freedom and democracy. The United States and France remain close allies in addressing international threats and challenges to this day.
“Mr. Hayes, you embody the shared French-American history. You illustrated with your courage the friendship and shared values that so profoundly bound our two nations together here to honor you. In recognition of your heroic actions and extraordinary accomplishments, the president of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron, designated you to the Legion of Honor with the rank of Knight, France’s highest honor.”
Hommeril then pinned the Legion of Honor medal on Hayes.
“Mr. Hayes, you are a true hero,” said Hommeril. “You will be our hero forever. We, the French, will never forget what you helped do to restore our freedom. And today, we also remember the ultimate sacrifice of so many of your comrades who rest on French soil. They will remain forever in our hearts.
“Your example gives us inspiration for the future, and your legacy provides a moral compass for generations to come.”
Shy Armstrong, a representative of Georgia 4th District Congressman Hank Johnson, presented Hayes with a proclamation naming Nov. 12, 2019 as Wade E. Hayes Veteran of Distinction Day.
Hayes’ son, Sonny Hayes of Covington, also displayed a proclamation given to his father in 1944 when his Army unit liberated the town of Verdun in northern France.
“It has an English version on one side and the French version on the other,” said Sonny Hayes. “It has the mayor’s signature, and city council signature, and my dad’s signature. My dad was a master sergeant and probably not supposed to be in charge because there were officers of higher rank above him. Unfortunately, they had all been killed.”
Hayes’ daughter, Dr. Cyndy Hayes of New Jersey, couldn’t hold back tears during the ceremony or while talking about her father afterwards.
“We’re really proud of him,” she said. “He’s such a great dad. He’s our hero, and we love him.”
The French Consulate also brought wine from Bordeaux, France, for toasts.
Hayes said receiving the Legion of Honor means a lot to him.
“It means that France cares as much as anybody in the world,” he said. “They said it was coming, and it got here. I just want to say to the French government: Thank you. I’m just happy that I lived long enough to receive it.
“The first action that I saw was in Bordeaux,” Hayes said during the toast. “And the French people all during the battle and afterwards… that was the first wine that I got in France, in Bordeaux. I’ll never forget that.”
Asked to describe what it was like in France during World War II, Hayes recalled his first action.
“St. Lo was the first big battle that we were in, and from then on it was across France and up into Germany and some of the other countries. I just thank the Lord and the country that did this, thank you very much.”