NORFOLK, Va. — In front of family, friends, fellow veterans and current Virginia National Guard Soldiers, a World War II veteran who landed on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, with the Virginia National Guard’s 111th Field Artillery Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, was recognized as a Knight in the French Legion of Honor Jan. 11, 2015, in Norfolk, Va.
Former Army Lt. Cary Jarvis, a Norfolk native and current resident of Virginia Beach, received the French Légion d’honneur, or Legion of Honor, the highest decoration bestowed in France, from retired French Consulate Nicole Yancey. Col. Denys Colomb, the French National Liaison Representative to Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, and Brig. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, the Adjutant General of Virginia, joined Soldiers from the Norfolk-based 1st Battalion, 111th Field Artillery, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team for the ceremony at the Virginia National Guard’s Norfolk readiness center.
“I thank the Lord for protecting me and I’m sad for the death of so many,” Jarvis said in remembering that day 70 years ago when 73,000 American troops landed on the beaches of Normandy. “This honor means the world to me. I’m very appreciative. I want to thank Nicole and all the French people for making this presentation possible. Merci beaucoup. Thank you very much.”
World War II “was a painful time in France’s history and you helped my country regain its freedom, its pride and its honor,” Yancey told Jarvis.
“June 6, 1944 was a day like no other the world has known. Time has not erased those memories and today we recall the valor of these heroes of that fateful day. Among them you, Mr. Jarvis,” she said. “You are our hero.
“Dear Mr. Jarvis, in recognition of your heroic action and extraordinary accomplishments, and with the gratitude and affection of the people of France, the president of the French Republic nominated you to the Legion of Honor,” Yancey said before pinning the award on his jacket.
“It is a distinct honor for us to be able to recognize one of our heroic D-Day veterans,” Williams said. “The incredible courage men like Cary Jarvis displayed serves as an inspiration to each one of us who wears a uniform. We owe them a debt that can never truly be repaid, but this recognition by the French government is a meaningful way for us to show just how much we appreciate what these men did to secure the freedom we enjoy today.”
Jarvis, 92, was invited to the French Embassy in Washington to receive the award along with two dozen other World War II vets. However, health reasons prevented him from attending. So his family reached out to the 29th Infantry Division Association and the Virginia National Guard to organize an event to make the presentation.
The 1-111th already had a full weekend of drill planned, including written and hands-on testing for their section certification, but the unit wanted to make sure Jarvis received his proper recognition, according to Master Sgt. Christopher Robbins, the full-time noncommissioned officer in charge of the 1-111th.
Soldiers cleaned the armory, set up the drill floor for the ceremony and organized their museum room, which had recently been dismantled for construction. Three Soldiers put the room back together in a day and a half, filling it with memorabilia and historic artifacts, including photos that included Jarvis and his unit.
“I was surprised at how interested and how vested the Soldiers were in Jarvis,” Robbins said. “The level of participation and the level of determination to make this happen showed that we are bringing them up the right way. They were fascinated by him and really wanted to listen to his stories. The Army values really ring true and these Soldiers proved that.”
Sgt. Brian Burnham, a Soldier with B Battery, 1-111th, who was involved in the planning for the ceremony, was chosen to escort Jarvis around the armory.
“It was an incredible honor, a very memorable and moving experience” Burnham said. “I was deeply honored to not only meet him and shake his hand but also to hear some of his stories and be there while he received this great honor. It was very exciting and very moving for me.”
In addition to the Soldiers of the 1-111th, a group of Soldier-musicians from the Clifton Forge-based 29th Division Band provided music for the ceremony.
Jarvis joined the Virginia National Guard in 1939 at the age of 17 and served as a field artillery forward observer, a job that placed him on the front lines with the infantry to direct artillery fire to enemy targets. He earned a battlefield commission to lieutenant during the war, as well as the Bronze Star Medal. Jarvis served on the front lines in Europe, including the liberation of the French town of St. Lo, and continued to fight until Germany surrendered in 1945.
After the war, Jarvis left the service and worked for more than 20 years as a milk delivery driver for Birtcherd’s Dairy in his hometown of Norfolk.
The Legion of Honor is an order of distinction first established by Napoleon Bonaparte in May of 1802. It is divided into five categories: Chevalier (Knight), Officier (Officer), Commandeur (Commander), Grand Officier (Grand Officer) and Grand Croix (Grand Cross). The highest degree of the Order of the Legion of Honor is that of Grand Master, which is held by the sitting President of the Republic.
Foreign nationals who have served France or the ideals it upholds may receive a distinction from the Legion of Honor. American recipients include Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur, Admiral Michael Mullen, and even, as an institution, the United States Military Academy at West Point. Today there are approximately 93,000 Legion of Honor recipients. American veterans who risked their lives during World War II and who fought on French territory qualify to be decorated as Knights of the Legion of Honor. Veterans must have fought in one of the four main campaigns of the Liberation of France: Normandy, Provence, Ardennes, or Northern France.
The 111th Field Artillery Battalion was mobilized into active federal service for World War II in February 1941. During the war, the battalion earned four campaign ribbons in the European Theater of Operations, including the initial Normandy landings. They were in federal service for nearly five years while serving in the 29th Infantry Division. The battalion was designated as the initial artillery unit to land at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. During the war, the battalion suffered 39 battle deaths.
Today the 1st Battalion, 111th Field Artillery Regiment serves as the primary fire support unit for the 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. The battalion is headquartered in Norfolk with firing batteries in Sandston and Hampton. Elements of the battalion mobilized in January 2003 to support the Operation Noble Eagle homeland defense mission in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, the battalion has provided Soldiers for numerous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to support domestic operations during hurricanes and snow storms in Virginia.
The 1st Battalion, 111th Field Artillery was originally constituted as the 1st Battalion Artillery, Virginia Volunteers and organized on Nov. 8, 1877, from existing units to include the Norfolk Light Artillery Blues, now Battery B, and the First Company Richmond Howitzers, now Battery A.
Other Virginia National Guard World War II veterans who received the French Legion of Honor in recent years include Carl “Chubby” Proffitt, Robert Sales, Hubert Hobbs, John Kessler and Chuck Neighbor.
Additional reporting by Cotton Puryear, Virginia Guard Public Affairs