World War II veteran John O’Boyle earns recognition from French government
BEMIDJI — The Beltrami County Board Room is not normally a place where the philosophical similarities of the French and American republics are discussed.
But Wednesday, liberty was the foremost topic. And PFC John O’Boyle, decades removed from his service in World War II, delivered a speech that touched on the ideal, which remains the vanguard of democracy.
O’Boyle thanked the French, just as they thanked him. At 91-years-old, he became a Chevalier in the French Legion of Honour on Wednesday.
"They sent us a statue that’s really become an emblem of the United States," he told a packed boardroom, where he was honored by the French Government for his service.
The landmark’s name, as any elementary school history student will tell you — the Statue of Liberty.
"Not democracy, which is a process of voting, but liberty, which is freedom from restraint."
In September 1944, it was Hitler’s Nazi army that was restraining the French — a World War II chokehold that enveloped most of Western Europe starting in 1939.
And it was O’Boyle, along with millions of men and women from across the world, including some from the distinctly non-French, settled-by-an-Italian Beltrami County, who were fighting to break the restraints of tyranny.
For his efforts, O’Boyle received gunshot wounds to both legs while fighting on the Siegfried Line.
Despite that, and the medal pinned on his shirt by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., on Wednesday, O’Boyle insisted the ceremony wasn’t about him.
"I’m no different from thousands and thousands of others," he said.
At the entrance to the room where the crowd gathered Wednesday were two pictures — one, of O’Boyle standing alone in his uniform, and another where he was one of those thousands.
"Third row, fourth from the right," a woman said. Obviously, she’d seen the photo before. "Oh, they’ve circled him."
There was PFC John O’Boyle, before sustaining the injuries that took him back to England, before returning to Minnesota and becoming a teacher, and about 4,000 miles and nearly 70 years away from becoming a Chevalier.
He walked east down the Champs Elysees that day, the Arc de Triumph at his back and a bayonet on his shoulder.
"The event is more important than the recipient," O’Boyle said.
And the cause of liberty might be more important than its cost.