WWII Pilot Receives “Legion of Honor”

It was bitter cold but clear, as the last strains of “La Marsellaise” resonated into the air around the statue, “Le Monument aux Morts,” at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford Tuesday morning.  As a crowd of friends, colleagues, and well wishers – some in uniform – from all over the country waited, a somewhat stooped, 88-year old man with smiling eyes bluer than the late fall sky made his way up the cobblestones with his walker to the front row of seats – to begin a solemn ceremony about to take place in his honor.

Walking slowly behind Bill Overstreet, World War II flying ace of the 357th Fighter Group, came His Excellency Pierre Vimont, the Ambassador of France to the United States of America.  He was in Bedford to present his country’s highest honor to Captain Overstreet:  the Legion of Honor.

Having met Bill last year at United Way of Roanoke Valley’s Tocqueville Society dinner, Ambassador Vimont took a special interest in Overstreet’s case, and, when Bill was too frail to travel to France to receive his award, His Excellency offered to come to the National D-Day Memorial to present it to him personally there.

Bill Overstreet
Bill Overstreet

Moments after the Invocation from Chaplain Captain Jeffrey Clemons, a group of five J-3 aircraft, symbolic of the P-51C Mustangs that Bill Overstreet flew on 102 missions in Europe (including one in which he pursued a German fighter pilot under the Eiffel Tower) passed overhead, one veering off in the “missing man” formation.

Overstreet has continually stated that, should he live long enough to receive the Legion of Honor, which cannot be awarded posthumously, he would be accepting it in memory of his fallen brothers in arms, particularly his dear friend Eddy Simpson, who died fighting back the Nazis on the ground with the Free French so his comrades, including Bill, could escape. Many tears were shed as the planes disappeared out of sight and their sound died away, and the Soprano Rebecca Ravenshaw began to sing “America the Beautiful.”

Ambassador Vimont was lavish with his praise of Captain Overstreet, stating that his valorous deeds helped liberate France from the Nazi Occupation.  He also alluded to Eddie Simpson and all of the many brave Americans who never made it home from Europe after WWII. Once Vimont had pinned the beautiful Legion of Honor medal to Overstreet’s coat and given him the traditional two-cheek embrace, Captain Overstreet, standing straight, sans walker, made his way to the podium and issued a strong “Thank You” several times.

He and the Ambassador then placed a wreath of remembrance at the base of Le Monument aux Morts.  Major General Lloyd Ramsey, (U.S. Army Retired) who had listened to the ceremony wrapped in warm blankets against the weather, now threw them off and gingerly made his way up front to make the closing remarks of the emotional event.  He looked his long time friend Bill Overstreet in the eye, and the two old soldiers shared a private moment, before the General thanked everyone for coming and braving the temperature to honor their local hero.

Later, at a private lunch hosted by AREVA at the Mill Stone Tearoom, located in the middle of a farm not far from the Memorial, generals, colonels, an ambassador, various friends and family, and a very jubilant captain, now a modest retired CPA named William B. Overstreet Jr., laughed and talked and ate French food and made several moving toasts.  Congratulatory letters from Governor Kaine, Senator Warner, and Congressmen Perriello and Goodlatte were read aloud to and cheered by the assembly of 50.  Congressman Bob Goodlatte was originally responsible for introducing Bill Overstreet and Pierre Vimont, when he invited His Excellency to come to Roanoke for the United Way event where they first met last year.

As the Ambassador prepared to take his leave of the company to return to the Capitol for an early evening engagement, Bill Overstreet stood to present him with a signed print of four P-51C Mustangs in flight – it was of him and his team in those long ago dark yet courageous days.  Eddy Simpson’s plane, he pointed out to His Excellency, was that one, right there, the one in the missing man position.

By Linda Webb