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Valley veteran honored for WWII service with French Legion of Honor

September 7th, 2013 Posted in Opinion

‘The award is a representation of my entire outfit. It’s not just about me.’ – Hoyt Kelley

Story and photos by Manda Perkins

PROVIDENCE — It was a rainy celebration early Monday morning when friends and neighbors gathered under a pavilion at Zollinger Park to honor Hoyt Kelley. The 90-year-old World War II veteran had just returned from a trip to southern France, where he received one of the highest military tributes the French government awards — the Chevalier Legion of Honor — for his service with the U.S. Army’s 517th Parachute Regiment combat team.

Hoyt Kelley (right) visits with former Providence mayor Alma Leonhardt after the ceremony. Photo by Manda Perkins.

Kelley was awarded the medal by the mayor of Nice, France, at a ceremony attended by thousands of people. The ceremony was part of the anniversary celebration of the liberation of southern France from Hitler’s reign in 1944. Kelley’s regiment played a critical role in Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion that led to the victory in southern France. Of the 2,000 members of the regiment, only 41 are still alive today; Kelley was the only member well enough to make the trip to France to accept the decoration.

“When I saw how many people were there, I thought they were going to be handing out a lot of awards. I was the only one,” Kelley said. “But the award is a representation of my entire outfit. It’s not just about me.”

Kelley said that, although nothing can compare to a crowd of thousands of waving American flags, it was an honor to be recognized by the members of his own community.  “Providence is my hometown. I grew up here,” he said. “These were people who know me, and that made it very important to me.”

Kelley, who now lives in River Heights, was reared in Providence, where he spent most of his young adult life. He was 19 years old when his LDS Church bishop asked him if he’d like to serve a mission. He chose military service instead, after the example of his older brothers. Kelley spent 180 days in combat, 94 of those days in southern France. He was injured several times, earning him a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts.

Mayor Ronald Liechty, who atteanded Monday’s ceremony, said he is honored it is to be acquainted with hometown heroes like Kelley.  “We have such great citizens in Providence,” Liechty said. “We have people here who serve each and every day. It’s fantastic to have such people in our community. We are really blessed.”

The Chevalier Legion of Honor was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. It is the highest military honor that can be awarded to a non-Frenchman. American recipients of the award must have been involved in one of the major battles during World War II, including the Battle of the Bulge where Kelley’s regiment was in combat. Kelley said that the American equivalent to this award would be the Congressional Medal of Honor.


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