A South Surrey man was among six B.C. veterans bestowed with France’s highest honour this week, during an event marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.
The Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur was presented to John (Jack) H. Phillips in Vancouver by Consul General of France Jean-Christophe Fleury on behalf of the president of France, on Wednesday.
“I felt very honoured and very surprised,” Phillips said Friday of the distinction.
June 6 marks 70 years since Allied troops landed along 80 kilometres of beaches in Normandy.
Phillips, 91, remembers he was flying south of the beach head that night, as an intruder pilot with the RCAF 418 Squadron. His target: an airport at the city of Rennes.
“I was doing a patrol time down there, (with) a couple of 500-pound bombs, to try and place them on the airport and hopefully put it out of commission,” he said.
“It was actually pitch dark when I was there, I actually couldn’t see the airport at all. But I made an attack as close to the airport as I could make out.
“As soon as I started my attack, they opened fire on me, so I knew I was on the airport all right. So I just dropped my two 500-pound bombs and got out of there as quickly as I could.”
Phillips said he flew a total of 44 trips with the squadron, and, along with his navigator, was injured in a flight over Denmark one August night.
“It was a rather unfortunate trip, it didn’t work out too well,” he said. “I was about three months in the hospital.”
Not long after that trip, the two pilots were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. According to Veterans Affairs Canada, the cross recognizes “acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying in active operations against the enemy.”
Phillips – now a father of three and grandfather to seven – retired from the RCAF in 1964 with the rank of wing commander. He met his wife, Olga (Sunny), in Montreal, and the two have been married 67 years. They moved to South Surrey from Ottawa in 1984.
In a news release announcing Wednesday’s ceremony at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel, Premier Christy Clark described D-Day as “a foundational moment for an entire generation, and for Canada.”
“We will always be humbled by the tremendous courage, effort and sacrifices these men and women made overseas for us.”
Fleury said, “We are forever grateful to all those Canadian and Allied forces who sacrificed so much in the cause of freedom.”
Despite the passage of time, Phillips has a clear picture of his experiences in the war.
“These things tend to stick out in your memory,” the veteran said.