General Consul of France Valérie Baraban (left) presents World War II veteran Gerald Powell with the French Legion of Honor medal, the country’s highest distinction. In 2014, Powell and his wife, Mildred (right), returned to France to retrace his journey when he was a member of the Timberwolves, an American Army unit. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton
The highest and most prestigious decoration in France, the French Legion of Honor, was bestowed on 97-year-old veteran Gerald Powell of Horseshoe Bay for his service during World War II. The medal was presented to him by General Consul of France Valérie Baraban during a ceremony Tuesday, Nov. 2, in his home. The French Legion of Honor rewards civilians and soldiers who have achieved great things in the service to country.
Powell served in the 329th Medical Battalion of the 104th Infantry, a unit known as the Timberwolves, during World War II.
“I am only a single person from a unit who did the same things I did, and those need to be appreciated the same as I have been appreciated,” he said during the ceremony.
Powell and his unit entered Normandy, France, in September 1944, a few months after D-Day, but the war against Nazi forces was still well underway. He would spend 195 days in the European theater, and, along with thousands of other American and Allied personnel, would help bring down the Third Reich.
While it’s been 76 years since Germany surrendered in the second world war, many French still honor the sacrifices made by American and Allied forces for their country and Europe.
Baraban told Powell and those gathered at the ceremony that France owes a great deal of thanks to the men and women who helped free the country from Nazi occupation. She shared how Powell and the Timberwolves entered France and made their way across the country into the Netherlands and, eventually, Germany.
The Timberwolves stopped about 50 miles from Berlin before the fighting ceased, but the unit had come across atrocities, including a concentration camp where the Germans also manufactured the dreaded V-2 rockets that rained terror on London and the entirety of Great Britain.
“Thanks to your courage and to the sacrifice of thousands of young men like you, the second world war, which had been destroying Europe for years, was ultimately ended — not only ended but won by the forces of good, the forces fighting for liberty and democracy,” Baraban told Powell. “France expresses its eternal gratitude to young people like you who freed us from barbarism.”
As one of the few remaining Timberwolves, Powell hopes people always appreciate the effort so many have made in the name of freedom.
“… Freedom isn’t free, and a lot of people made the ultimate sacrifice for us, and we shouldn’t forget them.”
Napoleon Bonaparte established the French Legion of Honor in 1802 to recognize military members and civilians who have made great contributions to France. It’s not something easily earned, and those considered for it go through a thorough review. Powell’s daughter, Julie Harris, learned that her father was eligible for consideration in February 2020 from the Timberwolves veterans group.
“A lot of work went into documenting everything,” she said.
Harris put together a 10-page document detailing her father’s service in Europe. She also obtained two references for Powell’s character. After several months, she submitted everything to the Consulate General of France in Houston.
“And they closed down due to COVID for about three months,” Harris recalled.
When the consulate reopened, officials told her they had reviewed the materials on Powell and sent everything to France.
Earlier this year, Harris learned that French President Emmanuel Macron signed off on Powell’s French Legion of Honor medal. On Tuesday, Baraban arrived at the Powells’ home to present the medal in front of his family and a few friends.
“You know, I’ve always known my dad was a hero. I knew he was my whole life,” Harris said. “Now, others will also know.”
For more about Powell’s service, check out a 2014 DailyTrib.com article about his 2014 return trip to France and Europe, where he, his wife, daughter Julie, and her husband, Curt Harris, retraced his World War II journey.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story referred to Valérie Baraban as Second General Consul of France. Her title is General Consul of France.DailyTrib.com apologizes for the error.