Eighty years ago, Jim Spenst went over to France to serve in the Second World War. But this week, French dignitaries came to him for a special ceremony.
Spenst, 97, is the most recent Canadian to officially receive France’s highest order of distinction – the insignia of Knight of the French National Order of the Legion of Honour.
“I was proud to get it. My family are too,” Spenst said.
Spenst’s son presented the medal to him last year. But this week, the medal was officially bestowed upon him by the French ambassador to Canada during a ceremony at the local legion branch in Spenst’s hometown of Estevan, Sask.
The medal pays thanks to Spenst for his contributions that helped liberate France during the Second World War.
“I don’t know whether I deserved it or not, but I got it,” he said.
Jim Spenst, middle, poses with the French Ambassador to Canada after receiving the French National Order of the Legion of Honour. (Allison Bamford/CTV)
Spenst enlisted with the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps on Remembrance Day in 1943 at the age of 17. He trained in Canada until he was shipped off to the United Kingdom in June 1944.
“We took an unarmed combat infantry training. We learned how to kill people, which wasn’t nice,” Spenst said.
“But we never got into where we had to use our infantry training.”
Spenst transported equipment and supplies to different troops across Europe, including Belgium, Brussels and France. He returned home in December 1945 and was discharged a few months later.
“I went in a boy and come out a man,” he said.
In 2014, to mark the 70th commemoration of D-Day, the French government began the process of honouring Canadians who participated in operations that assisted with the liberation of France.
In the last decade, nearly 1,200 Canadians have received the medal, including 55 veterans from Saskatchewan.
As France prepares to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day next year, the country is working with the Canadian government to identify more veterans who qualify for the honour.
“People are aging. It’s kind of (a) race against time,” said Michel Miraillet, the French ambassador to Canada.
“Veterans you have, but the ones who participated in Normandy or helped the French Resistance may be a bit more limited.”
In order to be recognized, veterans who served on French soil must still be living — a criteria that is increasingly harder to meet as time passes.
“I’m just glad that we were able to apply and get the honour for Jim given that he is one of the last few World War II veterans that we have in the area,” said Craig Bird, president of the South East Military Museum in Estevan.
Bird and the local legion branch, where Spenst has dedicated years of his time, hopes to help other veterans in the application process.
Bird said if anyone knows a Second World War veteran who served in France, that person would likely qualify.
Those looking to apply can contact the Royal Canadian Legion or the French Embassy in Canada.
The next award ceremony will take place in Ontario in January, when the French ambassador will honour a 104-year-old Second World War veteran.