Winnipeg WW II veteran could be last Manitoban to earn prestigious French award

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Winnipeg WW II veteran could be last Manitoban to earn prestigious French award

A Winnipeg veteran has earned the highest honour given to those who fought in the Second World War.

Jim Magill has been awarded the Legion of Honour by France. The 95-year-old received the award at a ceremony Thursday for the part he played liberating France during the Second World War.

"Frequently it was very, very, very darn scary," Magill recalled of the war.

"Anytime you [were] over in Europe of course, they [Germans] were hammering away at you and trying to get you."

The Legion of Honour was first created by French military leader Napoléon Bonaparte in 1802, and it's possible Magill could be the final Canadian soldier to receive it.

"Sadly I think Mr. Jim Magill will be the last one here in Manitoba to receive this prestigious award — if not [the last] in Canada," said Bruno Burnichon, France's honorary consul in Winnipeg.

Burnichon says the distinction is only given out to soldiers who were in, near, or flying over Normandy, France, on D-Day — June 6, 1944.

That day marked the beginning of the end of the war as allied forces took back the German-occupied territory. More than 5,000 Canadian soldiers died during the Battle of Normandy, 340 of whom died on Juno Beach on June 6.

"This is something that the people of France have never and will never forget. It's still on their mind today and will always be," said Burnichon, who estimates somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 Canadian soldiers have received the Legion of Honour over the years. 

"The Canadians to the French people are not only the soldiers who liberated my country, but they are treated as true heroes."

Shipped out at 19

Magill was just 19 when he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, shipped out to France and fought in the Second World War.

He was the bomb-aimer on a flight crew of seven that included a pilot, a navigator, a flight engineer, a wireless operator, mid-upper and tail gunner who hailed from Scotland, England, Wales and Canada. 

"We are a crew, you depend utterly on one another. And so you're together, all these seven, constantly," he said.

"The camaraderie: the crew, you bunk together, sleep together and you do everything, you eat all your meals. You get to know a person pretty doggone good when you're in very stressful situations. You pat another fella on the back and, 'Come on, we can do it,' kind of thing."

He can recall commanders briefing crews and the tension in the air before they were sent up in planes.

"The wing commander would say a few words, 'Have a good one fellas, hurry back,'" he said.

Magill says his plane was hit by enemy forces a few times but always managed to stay in the air.

"I think if you go up in an aircraft under those kind of conditions you always say inwardly to yourself, 'Nothing will ever happen to me,'" Magill said.

"I was overhead, though. I wasn't on the ground. It must've been a horrible experience for those soldiers."

Magill still remembers the deep sense of relief he felt upon returning home in one piece after the war.

He still shares his experience with schoolchildren in Winnipeg classrooms to this day and tries to convey a sense of glory he feels for being a Canadian.

As for the Legion of Honour?

"It feels pretty darn, it feels good to me," he says. "I think it's kind of nice to be recognized."