Patrick Gillen (89) received the honor for his courage and gallantry during his role in the liberation of France in World War II. Gillen was among the Allied troops who landed at Normandy, on June 6, 1944.
The soldier enlisted at the age of 18 and was part of a regiment of French and United States commandos who landed on Sword beach on D-Day.
At the ceremony in Cork the French Ambassador Jean Pierre-Thebault said it was very rare to present the Legion d'Honneur, to acknowledge Gillen’s sacrifice, and remember it for future generations.
In accepting the award Gillen said he was humbled and honored and accepted the award on behalf of his family and those he fought with who never made it home.
A rifleman, now a father of four and grandfather of 12, he was in 6 Commando, a unit tasked with securing the important Pegasus Bridge, near Caen. More than half of his brigade was killed.
Gillen was never injured. He survived the six-mile trek from Sword beach to Pegasus Bridge through marsh, avoiding snipers, minefields and several weeks in trenches at Saulnier.
He said, “In accepting this award, other brave Irishmen, thousands of young men, who lost their lives in pursuit of peace remain in my memory.
"This award is as much theirs as mine."
During the emotional ceremony he admitted that D-Day was the first time he had set foot on French soil. Gillen's father and two uncles fought in France during World War I. H also lost two cousins there in World War II.
He said, “By the grace of God, I survived to be here today while many of my friends sleep in the fields of France," he added.
Due to ill health he was unable to attend commemorations held in France earlier this year.
He continued, “I feel both extremely honored and humbled in receiving the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur conferred on me by President (Francois) Hollande and the government of France."
He thanked all those present at the Mercy Hospital for facilitating the ceremony. He was joined by his family, Thebault and hospital staff.
Although grounded by ill-health, Gillen penned a heart-felt message to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings earlier this year. His note was attached to a laurel hand-made by his daughter, Mary, decorated with poppies and the Irish tricolor. His note read, “In memory of all commandos from the emerald island who lie in sleep in Normandy fields."
Gillen was born in Galway City in 1925. Upon returning to Ireland after the war he joined the Artillery Regiment in the FCA / Irish Reserve Defence Forces attaining rank of Battery Commander. His Official Rank was Commandant and he retired from this in 1982. In 1947, Pat found work with the Ford Motor Company in Cork as a press officer, where he worked until retirement in 1984.