Governor Baldacci honors a Maine veteran recognizing his service. Photo by Ramona du Houx
By Ramona du Houx
The WW II Battle of the Bulge has been depicted in various documentaries and movies, but nothing comes close to the reality. Bertrand Lafrance of Lewiston knows — he was there. Sent in to back up the first engaged units, he became a point man in his unit responsible for checking out the enemy’s position and reporting back to his commander. Out front on his own, encountering the enemy is one of a host of war memories that Lafrance has learned to live with. The most traumatic was being machine gunned down.
The Battle of the Bulge was the bloodiest of the battles that U.S. forces experienced in World War II where 19,000 Americans were killed. At the time the battle incorporated more U.S. troops and engaged more enemy troops than any other U.S. conflict in history. Lafrance fought from Le Havre, France, to Belgium, through Luxemburg, and on to Germany where he was wounded.
“I was lucky. I was one of the few that received penicillin. My legs were getting gangrene,” said Lafrance. “After two months they patched me up, and I went back on the front line in Germany and then on to Czechoslovakia.”
With the war in Europe over, Lafrance was shipped home. “When I got home I received new orders to be on the first wave to invade Japan. The bomb got there first.”
At war he learned how to sleep with snow as a bed and boots as a pillow. He learned to accept death on a daily basis.
“You don’t leave it behind. It’s an ordeal you don’t’ forget and often times you relive. Last night I got to bed at three and was awake at six. So today, I’ve got someone to drive me home,” said Lafrance. “Two years ago, I wouldn’t have been willing to tell you my story. Now, I want the next generation to know. There are about 16,000 of us World War II veterans that die every day. The history is going away. If we don’t tell it now, it will never be known. There aren’t many of us around anymore.”
Before his 13 weeks of army training, he was a crane operator at Bath Iron Works.
“When you’re called to duty, you serve. After boot camp we went right into battle. I’m proud of what we achieved. I’m a young 81 because of it,” he smiled.
Lafrance helps veterans receive medical treatment and medals that are due to them. He brought a National Veterans convention to the state of Maine in 2002. As a Purple Heart recipient he is equally proud of his new Maine Silver Star Medal.
“I spent years getting medals for veterans with the then Congressman Baldacci’s help, and Sen. Collins. It’s gratifying that the state now has its own medal,” said Lafrance.
The Silver Star Medal was first awarded to Maine veterans in August of 2006, and is presented to those who have been wounded while serving their country. Since its inception 123 medals have been presented.
“The governor has been there for the National Guard during the good times, and bad times. He’s made those difficult calls. These medals are another example of his great commitment to the veterans of our state,” said Maine Adjutant General John W. Libby.
Silver Star Medal presentations are held at the capitol periodically.
“You’ve given us a wonderful example. You’ve given us a role model and a standard to adhere to, to rise to, and to try to strive for, and I thank you for that,” said Governor Baldacci at the medal presentation ceremony in the Hall of Flags at the Statehouse where Lafrance received his Silver Star Medal. “It’s an inspiration to the troops who are now serving to live up to, and try to exceed the standards that our greatest generation has laid for us.”
The governor, Maine Adjutant General John W. Libby, and the Director of Veterans Services Peter Ogden awarded the service medals to the veterans.
“We — the general, myself, your friends and family — are all here to thank you for what you have given for your country,” said the governor. “You know all too well the meaning of sacrifice and service.”
For many veterans like Lafrance that sacrifice continues.
The state also has presented 36 Gold Star Honorable Service medals to family members of those killed while serving overseas.
Below is the list of veterans recognized last January:
Served in World War II: Raymond J. Cyr, Ernest A. Henderson, Romeo A. Huppe, Bertrand E. LaFrance, Leroy W. Linnell, Louis P. Pare, Rosaire Poulin, Raymond E. Reitze, Joseph R. Woodward.Served in Vietnam: Gary K. Brooks, Robert A. Darveau, Jr., Carl R. Douglass, H. Elkins, Leon S. Gallant, Peter B. Sargent.
In addition, fifteen other veterans injured in combat were honored but were not able to attend the ceremony: Served in World War II: Clifford J. Ayotte, Ernest H. Brian, George L. Pacillo, Alfred B. Sherman.Served in Korea: William O. Malone, Joseph A. Paradis.Served in Vietnam: Louis J. Aceto, Jr., Albert G. Gower, Philip E. Knowlton, Eugene A. Lugdon, James P. Lussier, Reginald C. Parker, Jr., Lester O. Paul, Theodore A. Perry, Jerald E. White.
The Governor’s Veterans Campus Legislation- a model for Maine
Governor John E. Baldacci announced the introduction of legislation to create a multi-purpose residential and health care center for Maine’s military veterans in Bangor. The project is designed to create a one-stop-shop for veterans to access services and information on state and federal veterans programs they have earned by virtue of their service to their nation.
“Maine veterans and their families deserve the highest quality health care, housing and other benefits,” said Governor Baldacci. “They’ve served our country, giving selflessly of themselves, and it’s our responsibility as a nation to make sure they are taken care of when they come home. The project we are proposing with this legislation will incorporate the needs of Maine veterans now and into the future, providing access to comprehensive services.”
Last May the Governor created a planning committee through an Executive Order to develop the recommendations for moving forward with the veterans campus. Saxl Park, Dorothea Dix, Maine Veterans Housing Coalition and Maine Veterans Homes, as well as the other committee members, all played key roles.
Independent housing, long-term skilled nursing care, residential care, outpatient clinical care, hospice care, and the information and programs administered by the state’s Bureau of Maine Veterans Services would all be available at the current site of the Maine State Veteran’s Home in Bangor.
“This campus is going to build upon the features at the facility that is there now. We are going to be adding a new hospice facility, an outpatient clinic and new independent housing for veterans to the existing facility,” said Baldacci. “This campus design was done not just for the Bangor facility, but it was one that can be mirrored in Downeast Maine, Aroostook County and every place that we have a veterans home facility.”