France bestows Legion of Honor to Beaufort's Jimmie Leach

Col. Leach in Vietnam, 1969.
Col. Leach in Vietnam, 1969. Special to the Gazette/Packet

Down the street from the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, the Musée National de la Légion d'honneur was a mandatory stop for Marion and Jimmie Leach of Beaufort whenever the couple visited the city.

The couple would stroll the halls of the museum, housed in an 18th century palace on the west bank of the Seine River, and marvel at the historical figures inducted by the French government into the National Order of the Legion of Honor. The order was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 to recognize military and civilian service to the French Republic and is the highest honor in France.

President Dwight Eisenhower, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Queen Elizabeth II are among the foreign-born members of the order, and James Leach has joined their ranks. Leach died in December at age 87 after suffering a heart attack while driving on Lady’s Island.

Leach was awarded the Legion of Honor before his death. On Sept. 1 in Warner Robins, Ga., the Consul General of France in Atlanta, Pascal le Deunff, will preside over a ceremony recognizing the induction of Leach and three other American World War II veterans from the Southeast into the Legion of Honor.

“I think he would be humbled by this honor,” Marion Leach, his widow, said.

Claire Collobert, spokeswoman for the Consul General, said the four veterans are being honored for helping liberate France during World War II.

"All World War II veterans who fought in France are entitled to join the Legion of Honor," Collobert said. "It was not hard at all to deem James Leach worthy of this honor, as he basically fought all over France in World War II and in many famous battles. We have reason to believe he played a major role in fighting for the freedom of the French people and democracy."

Collobert said Leach applied to receive the Legion of Honor shortly before his death in December.

To be considered for the award, which is technically reserved for French citizens, a veteran must provide his military records and other documentation to prove he fought in France.

Once the application is completed, it is forwarded to Paris where it must be approved by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Collobert said.

Born in Houston, Texas, Leach joined the Texas National Guard at 16 and at 22 became the platoon commander in a tank company under Gen. George Patton during World War II.

After landing on Utah Beach in Normandy five weeks after D-Day in 1944, Leach and the men of Company B, 37th Tank Battalion, 4th Armored Division raced across France, liberating villages such as Arracourt and Chancenay along the way.

Leach was awarded the Purple Heart five times for injuries he suffered during World War II and also was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his service during the war.

Leach was best known locally for his campaign to expand Beaufort National Cemetery, where he was buried last year.

Marion Leach, Leach's wife of 58 years, and his son, Jamie, will accept the honor on his behalf next month.

"If he were here, I think he would accept it in honor of those men who lost their lives," Marion Leach said. "I don't think serving in France meant that much to him at the time, but when he'd go back and revisit these places and meet those people, he realized how grateful they were for what he and his men did for them. It meant a lot more to him then."

Leach sensed that gratitude whenever he visited French villages."His greatest reward was being able to go over these past few years and be welcomed into the villages and homes of people in France and Luxembourg," Jamie Leach said. "It's a great honor to be recognized by the government of France ... but the greatest honor he ever received were the open arms of those people."