Walter Bingham describes himself as a “small cog in the vast allied undertaking” that invaded Normandy in 1944 to help defeat the Third Reich. On Thursday, he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur aboard a French warship in Haifa Port, as he spoke on behalf of comrades who did not live to see this day.
The Legion d’Honneur is the highest French decoration for military and civilian accomplishments. Created in 1802 it has been awarded to thousands, but rarely to those with as colorful a life as Bingham.
Ambassador of France Helene Le Gal welcomed the honoree aboard the anti-submarine frigate Jean de Vienne.
“France would like today to honor a veteran who fought to free our country from Nazi occupation 74 years ago,” she said.
The ambassador reminded those attending, including Bingham’s family and an honor guard on the helicopter pad of the warship, that Bingham had been born in 1924 in Germany to Polish Jewish parents. He fled to the UK in 1939 after Kristallnacht, where he enlisted in the army. He landed at the beaches of Normandy as an ambulance driver on June 7, 1944.
“France wants to thank you officially for your commitment,” Le Gal declared. Then she pinned the red award on his chest.
Bingham said the ceremony was a great honor. “I represent all my comrades and colleagues who didn’t make this day but deserved the same [award].”
He said that as a refugee arriving in England he felt a special duty to fight and defeat the Nazis. “Our motivation was very strong. I came to England with a Polish passport,” he recalled. Even though he had grown up in Germany, the country did not provide Jewish migrants from Poland the right to citizenship. In a strange irony, when he arrived as a refugee in England with other German Jewish youth in 1939, he was considered a “friendly alien” because Poland was allied with the British against the Nazis. The German Jewish children arriving on German passports were seen as “enemy aliens.”
The Jean de Vienne is the French warship that is permanently on station in the eastern Mediterranean and. It is named for a French knight and admiral of the Hundred Years War who fought the English. The first French warship named Jean de Vienne was a cruiser built in 1931 and scuttled in 1942 so that the Germans could not use it against the allies.
The current iteration of the ship put to sea in 1982 and it is on its last year of active duty. Along with its crew of around 200 it was deployed to the Indian Ocean in 2009 and helped defend a Croatian tanker against pirates. An AK-47 assault rifle captured from the pirates is displayed inside the ship.
Capt. Fabrice Berthelot says that he has seen improved cooperation with Israel over the last year. As part of France’s presence in the Mediterranean the frigate is taking part in an anti-submarine exercise with the Israel Navy, he says.
Down in a small reception room in the ship, Bingham regaled those present with stories from the war and his life since then as a journalist and actor in the UK and Israel. He made aliya in 2004 and continues to work in journalism Amid a spread of French wine, cheese and hors d’oeuvre, Bingham sounded an alarm about whether the lessons of the past had been learned. France and other European states must “guard against unsavory elements that are trying to destroy our democratic way of life,” he says. The lessons of the First World War were not learned, and while the fight against racism and antisemitism in the Second World War was successful, he says we must be watchful to make sure that the millions who fought Nazism are not forgotten, and their efforts are fulfilled.