A 95-year-old Olean man who served in World War II has received France's highest honor for military and civil merits. A representative of the French government presented Charles "Charlie" Brown with the Légion d'Honneur during a ceremony Friday afternoon in Olean.
The ceremony was held inside Olean Community Church, and opened with the playing of the Star Spangled Banner and La Marseillaise, followed by America the Beautiful and an opening prayer by Pastor Bryan Garrett, who then welcomed an audience of approximately 120 people to the "Charlie Brown fan club."
His tribute was one of several delivered by speakers who also included State Senator George Borrello, who told the room that Brown's personal sacrifice was the destruction of all his belongings shortly after arriving at Utah Beach. Brown, who served with the 258th Field Artillery in the US Army, saw more than 300 days of combat, from arriving in France to helping bring Berlin to surrender.
"There's a reason why your generation is referred to as the Greatest Generation," Borrello said. "You had the steadfast, determined attitude and everything else that made World War II turn around."
Brown, speaking one-on-one with WBFO prior to the ceremony, recalled his unit firing more than 33,000 shells in those 302 days of combat action. He also recalled that for all the fire they unleashed upon German lines, there were Germans firing back at them.
"That's when it really got kind of rough," he said. "One time we went up to fire upon a German pillbox (armed guard post), and while we were trying to knock that pillbox out, somebody over here would start firing at us. We had to try and decide, did we keep firing at that or did we turn around and fire back? Sometimes it was kind of scary when the shells started getting fairly close."
Presenting Brown with his medal was Pascal Soares, Honorary Consul of France in Buffalo. He said the French people remain grateful to those who fought to push back Nazi occupiers. Among those liberated, he noted, were his parents, who at that time were children.
"How could we French forget D-Day in France, and your heroic action? We did not. We never forget," Soares said. "Even my mother and father, who were 10 and 12 years old at the time, they remember when the Nazis came into town, occupying, and leaving town as you and your comrades were liberating our cities."
Soares referred to Brown as "our hero" and "my liberator."
In addition to Brown's wife and family, elected officials and members of the Olean community, veterans and active military were also present. Four current members of the 258th Field Artillery were in attendance. Captain Steven Kerr spoke of Brown qualifying for the Légion d'Honneur.
"To be eligible, Charlie had to participate in one our of the four main campaigns that took place in France: Normandy, Provence, Ardennes and Northern France," Kerr said. "Charlie took place in three of those four."
Brown, when meeting WBFO prior to the ceremony, introduced himself as "Charlie Brown before there was a Charlie Brown," referring to the classic Peanuts cartoon character created by Charles M. Schulz. That similarity was also utilized for several humorous moments during the ceremony. Honorary Consul Soares was presented with a gift in appreciation of his appearance, a Christmas tree ornament featuring the character.
Before moving into the church hall for a reception, Pastor Garrett invited the guests to help him finish a phrase based on the character but aimed at the veteran: "You're a good man, Charlie Brown!"