FLEMINGTON, NJ - On Feb. 11, John Paller, a Hunterdon County World War II veteran, took his place in history as he received France’s most prestigious award, the French Legion Medal of Honor.
In front of a large group of well-wishers including family, friends, military veterans and elected officials, the Consul General of France, Anne-Claire Legendre, presented the insignia of the “Knights in the National Order of the Legion of Honor” to the 97-year old Paller for his military service.
As a 19-year-old airman from the 491st Bombardment Group, Paller faced great challenges in the fight against the Axis powers. He took part in 35 combat missions, including one eight-hour flight to protect Lyon, and bombing missions attacking German supply depots and important Nazi headquarters.
The ceremony to honor Paller was held at the historic Hunterdon County Courthouse in Flemington, and began with the playing of the national anthems, “Marseillaise” and the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
Deputy Director of the Hunterdon County Board of Chosen Freeholders Susan Soloway opened the formalities with an introduction of special guests, elected officials and the many veterans in attendance.
Legendre took the podium and immediately thanked Paller.
“Thousands of miles from your home, family and friends you put your life at great risk,” she said. “A true example of the bravery of the greatest generation that valued liberty more than their mortality. It is thanks to the 2 million Americans who served in Europe and to the hundreds of thousands of men who didn’t make it back from the battlefield, that we live freely today.”
“The French government and the French nation will never forget your service,” she added. “You are a true American hero.”
Pinning the medal on him, Legendre referenced the recent 75-year commemoration of D-Day.
“This prestigious distinction is an expression of the deep gratitude that the French people have for the Americans who contributed to the liberation of France in World War II,” she said. “We will never forget the bravery of American heroes, such as John Paller.”
Paller only spoke briefly, acknowledging first his squadron, without whom, he said, “I wouldn’t be here.” He read each of their names, hometowns and their crew positions.
He then introduced his family – wife Diana, daughter Ginny, son David, son-in-law Michael and granddaughter Megan.
Asked after the ceremony about her grandfather’s military service, Megan said, “He never made a big deal about it, but he’s always been a hero to me.”
The award from the French government was not the only honor bestowed on Paller.
Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-16) presented Paller with a joint legislative resolution asking, “How do you top the highest honor from France?”
Having spoken with Paller before the program began, Zwicker said of Paller, “He is so modest. There’s not a sense of bragging. He just speaks with eloquence and a quiet sense of pride about a job well done.”
A resident of Raritan Township, Paller also received a resolution from his hometown Mayor Jeff Kuhl and committeeman Scott McDade.
“We appreciate everything you did for us in World War II to keep our freedoms,” said Kuhl.
Finally, Paller was presented with a resolution from Soloway and freeholder John Lanza.
“We greatly appreciate the decision by the French government to recognize a member of our nation’s greatest generation, Mr. John Paller, who heroically served in both protecting the freedom of our country and in the restoration of the freedom of France during World War II,” Soloway said.
Upon his return to the U.S., Paller served as an Air Force flight instructor for 22 years.
Created to reward eminent military and civil merits in the service of France, the Legion of Honor was founded in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte.
Paller joins the ranks of other American citizens who have received this honor, including Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, General Douglas MacArthur, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
To end the ceremonies, Soloway thanked Legendre for attending and presented her with a pound of grass-fed cheese from Milford-based Bobolink Dairy and Bakehouse, which received a silver medal in the Lyon’s 2018 Farm Cheese Awards.
“You certainly know how to treat a French woman,” said Legendre holding the basket of cheese and laughing.
The event was coordinated by the Hunterdon County administrative services office.