The Legion of Honor: Founded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the National Order of the Legion of Honor is the highest honor in France. It recognizes eminent services to the French Republic. Foreign nationals who have served France or the ideals it upholds may receive a distinction from the Legion of Honor. American veterans who risked their lives during World War II and who fought on French territory qualify to be decorated as Knights of the Legion of Honor. Veterans must have fought in one of the four main campaigns of the Liberation of France: Normandy, Provence, Ardennes, or Northern France. Recipients of this honor are designated by the president of the Republic, François Hollande.
Henry Reyno Petree and his fellow soldiers in the 1306th Engineer General Service Regiment specialized in building bridges, lots of bridges.
Petree, now 91, built dozens throughout France during World War II, allowing the landings at D-Day to turn into a rout of the German defenders through the country and into Germany itself.
For his service during the war, Petree was honored with the Legion of Honor by the French consulate Jan. 27, in his hometown of Atlanta, along with 11 other veterans who helped liberate France from German occupation. He was nominated for the award by Rod Davis.
Petree, Bethlehem resident, remembers many of the bridges he built, but it was while building one across the Rhine and into Germany that he had a couple of memorable moments.
There, he met up with his brother, Ralph, who had been serving as a driver for officers in a different unit. His brother had received a Christmas package from their mom. In that place near the border with Germany, the two brothers shared the gifts in the package.
It was also where they saw Gen. George Patton, who had won the competition with other top generals to be first to the river. After that, the general made a very symbolic gesture.
“That was where Patton urinated in the river,” Petree said. “So my brother and I did it, too.”
Petree returned to his task of building the bridge to cross the river and lead Patton’s army into German territory.
His time in the war would eventually take him to the Austrian border and then on a ship from France, through the Panama Canal and to the Philippines and Japan before finally heading home.
“I went around the world,” he said.
Following the war, Petree returned to his home state and enrolled at the University of Georgia. There, he met his future wife, whom he married in 1950. Then Petree led a life as a farmer, businessman and more.
But his time serving his country in World War II is still a big part of his life. Displays of medals, pictures and maps on the walls of his house attest to it.
“I’m proud of what I did,” he said. “No one else built (around) 75 bridges in France.”
He didn’t just build bridges, either. His unit was caught up in the great German counteroffensive in the winter of 1944-1945 and participated in the Battle of the Bulge. He still remembers the cold.
“During the battle we were fighting in (deep) snow,” he said.
During the fight, he suffered his only real injury. Two of his toes froze during the long battle and long winter.
He experienced the D-Day landings as well. He remembered wading through deep water to get to the beach because the landing craft was not able to get too close to shore.
Soon after, he said, his unit reached the ruins of the Normandy town of St. Lo.
Soon afterward, the work to build and repair bridges began. It took him into central Europe, to East Asia and eventually back home and to degrees from UGA in animal husbandry and plant science.
His marriage and life led him to Barrow County in 1961, where he’s been ever since.
He built a life after leaving the war, but he was done building bridges.