French Government Honors Central Illinois Man’s WWII Service
By Daniel Hajek
A World War II veteran from Streator, Ill. was recently awarded with a medal from the French government for his military service 67 years ago
Earlier this month, Joe Panno, 92, sat in his kitchen in Streator preparing a short speech for the night of the awards ceremony. The speech is about his time fighting in France.
As difficult as it is for Panno to think about the War, he goes back many years to when he was a 22 year old drafted into the 29th Infantry Division: Company M, heavy weapons, manning mortars and .30 caliber machine guns.
“We backed up the riflemen,” he recalled. “The riflemen are definitely right on the front lines and we were definitely right behind them.”
He arrived in France in June of 1944 following the D-Day invasion.
Panno was sent into the battle for Saint-Lô in North Western France, fighting in swampy fields, steep hills and the infamous Normandy hedgerows.
“We had no idea what was on the other side of that hedgerow,” Panno said. “So we were fighting possibly within ten feet of the enemy at times.”
He said it was relentless. The victory at Saint-Lô cost more than 15,000 American casualties.
“Sure, you’re scared,” Panno explained. “There’s no question about it. But I think we were fighters, all of us. We wanted to accomplish our mission and those that got it, got hit. We just figured we gotta keep going.”
That is exactly what Panno and his battalion did.
“It was a constant war in France,” he said. “It was one battle after another. There was no such thing as going back for a meal. You had your rations you were given, three rations a day, and that’s what we lived on.”
Panno said he finds it difficult to talk about the war.
“You get married, you have children, you don’t dwell on the negatives anymore,” he explained.”
But now, decade after the end of World War II, Panno received the French Legion of Honor commemorating his exceptional service in France and acknowledging his fight for France’s liberation.
Since 2005, that medal has been extended to American World War II veterans as a symbol that their service to France over a half-century ago will never be forgotten.
“There is no higher honor than the Legion of Honor in France,” said Consul General Graham Paul from the French Consulate in Chicago.
Paul said more than 100 Legion of Honor medals are awarded to veterans each year in the Midwest alone. The consulate finds eligible veterans, sends an official form to the French Embassy in Washington D.C., they review it, then send it to Paris.
“If everything is fine, it ends up on the table of the French President (Francois Hollande), who will sign the decree,” Paul added. “The French people will never and shall never forget. And a way to show that is to bestow this highest honor to the American veterans.”
In his kitchen, Panno reaches for the letter he received from Consul General Paul, and he reads it out loud:
“It’s a great honor and privilege to present you with the Knight of the Legion of Honor Medal. More than 65 years ago, you gave your youth to France and the French people. Many of your fellow soldiers did not return, but they remain in our hearts.”
Panno said this award comes as an incredible surprise.
I’m just amazed by it,” he said. “I can’t really describe it.”
Earlier this month, Panno arrived at Streator’s City Hall for the award ceremony, greeted by a small group of family, close friends and fellow veterans.
“I think everybody is aware that Joe is a proven hero,” said Mayor Jimmie Lansford, addressing the audience.
“His awards are Bronze Star Medal, Combat Infantry Man’s badge, four bronze campaign stars,” Lansford said. “He has three overseas bars.”
Lansford is handed a maroon box, which he slowly opens to unveil the French Legion of Honor to the stoic Panno.
“And now it is my privilege to present this French Legion of Honor to you, Joseph,” Lansford said.
Lansford carefully pinned the medal to Panno’s jacket.
“Thank you very much,” Panno said. “I would also like to share this honor with all the veterans, and those who fought and didn’t make it home. They are the heroes. God bless all of you and God Bless America.”
“To bestow upon him the Legion of Honor, is a way to show our gratitude. And I will say our eternal gratitude,” Consul General Graham Paul explained.
Paul said Panno now joins the ranks of famous French philosophers, authors, politicians and scientists, American Generals George S. Patton and Douglas MacCarthur, and the man who established the French Legion of honor in 1802: Napoleon Bonaparte.
Joe Panno is in good company.