Pownal Veteran Receives France's Highest Honor
Pownal - Wallace Mattison doesn't consider his contribution to the Allied cause in World War II to have been anything special. Although he risked his life for the liberation of Europe, and was wounded by a German bullet that barely missed his spine, "I just was doing what was asked of me," he says simply. "I just don't feel like I'm a hero."
The French government begs to differ.
This morning, the Consul General of France in Boston, Valery Freland, will present Mattison with the Legion of Honor in a ceremony at the Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington. The Legion of Honor is France's highest civil and military decoration, awarded by the French president in recognition of exemplary service to the republic.
Since the 60th anniversary of D-Day in 2004, a grateful France has bestowed the Legion of Honor on a number of American veterans of WWII, as their numbers continue to dwindle. According to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, 558,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in the war are alive today. Of those, Vermont can claim 1,498.
Mattison, who celebrated his 93rd birthday in September, was 18 when he decided to follow his high school friends and enlist in the army. Leaving behind his family in Bennington, he went through basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, eventually boarding a ship for a 13-day crossing to Ireland.
Ten days before D-Day, he and the rest of the 29th Infantry Division, 115th Regiment, were relocated to Britain. Their ultimate destination was Omaha Beach, one of the five sectors of the Normandy landings. Pfc. Mattison was a light machine-gunner. "I did not go in with the first wave, and neither did my regiment," he explained. "I went in with the first replacements."
What was he thinking as the landing craft deposited him and his regiment on the beach? "I was a little dumb boy from Vermont, and it was all new to me," he laughs. "Fortunately, I was dumb enough that I was thinking I was just observing - just enjoying the scenery."
The Allied troops who had secured the beach days before had already pressed some 20 miles into occupied France by this point. The 29th Division took part in the liberation of St. Lo, an important crossroads that had been nearly razed by Allied bombing. It was at St. Lo that Mattison first came face-to-face with a German soldier; surprising each other at close range, both shot - and missed - before escaping.
The gunshots attracted the attention of a German gunnery crew, who wheeled their cannon out into the street. "We were told, 'Do not go into any of these houses, because they're all booby-trapped.' But when he started firing, we didn't care, we went in the front door and right out the back." A U.S. tank destroyer silenced the cannon.
From St. Lo, the division was trucked to the coastal city of Brest, one of the ports the Allies had intended to use to bring supplies to the troops and tanks headed east. Though it's not one of the better-known stories of the Normandy invasion, the Battle for Brest was fiercely fought, with the well-entrenched German garrison holding out for more than five weeks.
On September 12, 1944, one week after his 20th birthday, Mattison's platoon was moving toward the city through an open field when it encountered German troops. "They never fired at us, and we couldn't figure that out," he said. "We got right to where there was a tank trap, a deep ditch to keep the tanks from going over. They waited until we got up where we could see the tank trap, and they started firing.
"What are you going to do? I jumped in there, and I climbed up to see if anything was coming, and that's just what they wanted us to do. They had us trapped. We were in the tank trap, and they were up above us, firing." A bullet caught Mattison in the lower back, passing through him and nicking bone.
He was carried by stretcher to the field hospital, where he had the first of two operations to repair the damage. He would eventually be transferred back to a rehabilitation hospital in England before returning to active duty in February 1945.
"I'll tell you what - I have to this day considered my wounds a blessing," Mattison said. "You've heard of the Battle of the Bulge? That was the 101st Airborne Division, they were surrounded for almost all of December. They were running out of food, they were running out of ammunition.
"What did they do with their wounded? They moved them into bombed-out buildings and put them on the floor. And me? I laid in a warm hospital on a mattress covered up with a blanket, three square meals a day. You tell me - that's not a blessing?"
Mattison returned to the U.S. in November 1945, and was honorably discharged with the rank of private, first class. He and a cousin talked their way into cabinetmaker's jobs before Mattison joined the Bennington Police Department, which would be his home for the next 38 years.
He married the former Elizabeth "Libby" MacLean in 1946, and the couple raised four daughters: Linda, Maureen, Gail and Carol. At the time of Libby's death in 2015, they had been married for 69 years. Forty years ago, he and Libby moved from their native Bennington to Pownal, to the house where Mattison still lives. The family has grown to include three grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
"I think I've had a wonderful life," he said.
But he's still in wonder over today's honor. "I did what I was asked, and I never refused, I did everything that was ever asked of me, and I just don't feel like I was a hero.
"There were a lot of kids, you know, who were killed over there."
David LaChance, Bennington Banner