Pat Gillen, 89, who was among the first wave of troops to land on Sword Beach in Normandy, on June 6, 1944, was presented with the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur by Jean-Pierre Thébault, the French ambassador to Ireland, in recognition of his outstanding bravery and military service at a special ceremony in the Mercy University Hospital (MUH) in Cork.
Mr Thébault said the French government wanted to honour Mr Gillen as an Irish hero who committed his life, youth, and courage for a noble cause — democracy and the freedom of France and Europe.
“Your courage is worth remembering,” said Mr Thébault.
“When you enlisted in 1943, the war was at its climax and many were losing hope, confronted with an already long war, where the enemy looked still triumphant.
“By enlisting, Patrick, you helped turn the tide, as every man and woman’s courage and strength was then crucial.
“You and other young men showed that a war is not finished until the last battle is fought and carried the hope for a renewed and free France with them.”
Mr Gillen said he was thrilled, but immediately felt unworthy, when told he was to receive the honour, and recalled how his father, William, and his uncles, Robert and Dominick, all served in the Royal Engineers Mounted Signals, and fought in France in the First World War.
“My father was wounded three times, while my uncle lost an arm,” he said.
“During that campaign, my father received the Mons Star. My uncle later was to receive an OBE.
“In accepting this award, these and other brave Irish men, thousands of young men who lost their young lives in the pursuit of peace, remain in my memory. This award is as much theirs as mine.”
Mr Gillen, aged 18, ran away from home in Galway to enlist in the army in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, on Easter Monday, 1943.
He trained in the Norfolk regiment, achieving the rank of sergeant and was posted to 6 Commando unit before taking part in the Normandy landings.
Mr Gillen landed with his unit on Sword Beach at about 8.30am on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
They were tasked with protecting the left flank and reinforcing the 6th Airborne, which was holding a number of bridges, preventing counterattacks.
Under heavy sniper and mortar fire, and despite sustaining severe casualties, they secured the bridges and extended forward to a farm in Amfreville, where they held a defensive position for more than 40 days.
During the course of the mission, more than half of Mr Gillen’s unit were killed or injured.
Mr Gillen spent 82 days fighting on French soil before returning to Britain on September 3.
He later fought in the Netherlands and joined forces crossing the Weser and Aller advancing on Berlin, before ending his war near Lubeck.
When he returned to Ireland, he joined the Artillery Regiment in the Army Reserve) and attained the rank of Battery Commander in the 8 Field Artillery Regiment.
His official rank was commandant and he retired in 1982.
A father of four and grandfather of 12, Mr Gillen lives in Ardmanning Ave, and also worked for Ford in Cork.