"IT FEELS VERY NICE THAT THEY REMEMBER."
KAMLOOPS - If you ask Cpl. Leonard Ford to tell you what the Second World War was like, why he joined or what it feels like to be honoured in Europe, he’ll simply shrug and tell you, "We engineers weren’t in the fighting, we were always building something. What we didn’t build, we fixed."
It's unlikely he'll boast about receiving a medal of distinction last month — specifically the Legion of Honour — from the French government to recognize his involvement in liberating France in 1945.
“This distinction illustrates the profound gratitude that France would like to express to you. It is awarded in recognition of your personal involvement in the liberation of our country during World War II. Through you, France remembers the sacrifice of all of your compatriots who came to liberate French soil,” a letter to Ford from the Ambassador of France to Canada states.
The mission for Ford’s company was different than most. He’s right to say there wasn’t much fighting, but historian Guy Black says without people to clear minefields or fix equipment or re-build roads infantry soldiers wouldn’t have been able to keep moving across the various terrains of Western Europe. It was Ford's unit who were among the first assault wave at Normandy during D-Day — an operation that claimed many lives.
Ford received the medal last month after Black nominated him for the award. Black, who studies military history, met Ford after researching his troop mate who died on the beaches of Normandy in 1944. The two met at a 6 Engineer Squadron reunion where Ford managed to meet up with his fallen troop mate's brother.
“Some people might think it’s an engineer unit (so) they’re not infantry; they’re driving tanks. They were there clearing mines and obstacles from the beach. They suffered the greatest amount of casualties for the unit (at Normandy),” Black says.
Black got to know Ford; he asked the mechanic for his advice on how to restore a Second World War jeep to meet the specifications to one from the 1940s. Once he saw other veterans receive the medal from France, he knew Ford deserved the honour and set about nominating him by filing out forms with Veteran's Affairs, contacting the French embassy in Ottawa and liaising with Ford's son, Jim.
“I try to do as much as I can for veterans. I consider myself to be an unoffical advocate for veterans. I thought maybe I could help,” Black says. “Len Ford didn't ask me to nominate him. He did his part (in the war)."
The 95-year-old tells of his experience in the war with much humility and fondly recalls the odder moments like the time his troop's tent fell in the middle of the night, or learning from the "crazy buggers" in England how to steer a motorcycle with your knees. He remembers signing up in Vancouver to join the engineers, although it wasn’t his first choice.
"I went to join the Air Force but didn’t have enough (years of) high school. I had to have at least three years of high school but I barely had a year,” he says. “It was either work or the army — you had your choice."
It was the Dirty 30s and Ford already cut his teeth as a mechanic at a shop in Vernon, where he worked instead of attending high school. While he couldn’t get into the Air Force, the person at the registration desk recommended he apply to work with the engineers. Soon, he was headed to Nova Scotia where he and others constructed a training camp. By 1941 the company went overseas, landed in England and later took part in liberating France and the Netherlands.
It might have taken 70 years for France issued the medal, but Ford's response to the honour is a simple one: “It feels nice. It feels very nice that they remember."
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