As three generations of his family looked on Sunday, Benny Arechiga, 92, of Osseo officially became a French hero.
Nearly 70 years after the young soldier manned a tank machine-gun and helped liberate France from Nazi Germany, he was appointed a knight of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest distinction.
“Mr. Arechiga you are part of the generation that literally saved the world. You helped liberate Europe and France from the grip of the Nazis,” U.S. Sen. Al Franken, DFL-Minn., said during the ceremony at the Coon Rapids VFW. “You liberated France from the greatest enemy they or we have ever faced. You are a hero to me.”
The celebration began when police from Osseo, Brooklyn Park, Anoka and Coon Rapids escorted Arechiga’s vehicle from his Osseo nursing home to the VFW. Arechiga, who has suffered a small stroke, was rolled in his wheelchair into a reception hall as the Coon Rapids High School marching band played and more than 100 friends and relatives, including 11 veterans, applauded.
“Grandpa left home in Fargo in 1942 when he was called to fight dictators and save the world from tyranny. He risked his life so that others might be free,” his grandson Michael Nordstrom told the packed hall.
The family only recently learned that Arechiga qualified for the Legion of Honor and began the process of applying on his behalf. The French government grants the award to a select group of U.S. veterans who can show they risked their lives during World War II, fighting in Normandy, Provence/southern France or northern France, the three main campaigns that led to the country’s liberation.
Arechiga drove a Sherman tank and was a machine-gunner who fought in the Battle of the Bulge in the U.S. Army’s 493rd Field Artillery Battalion under General George Patton in 1944, said his son Roger Arechiga, a retired U.S. marshal and Air Force veteran.
Arechiga’s family migrated from Texas when he was a boy, working in the sugar beet fields near Fargo, Roger Arechiga said. He said Arechiga and his three brothers all joined the Army during WWII and one brother was killed fighting in Italy.
When Arechiga was discharged in 1945, he returned home to his wife, Bernice, in Fargo and they had five children. He worked for the Milwaukee Railroad for a decade before moving his family to northeast Minneapolis to work as a loading dock hand for a trucking company, his son said. He also was a Teamsters Local 120 union representative.
Although Arechiga didn’t speak at the ceremony, sitting quietly on a stage between Franken and Larry Shellito, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, he was quoted in the award program.
“We came back from the war, went to work, paid our bills and made a go of it,” Arechiga said.
“He was part of the Greatest Generation,” Franken said. “What they did was come back and build this country after World War II.”