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'You are a hero': Cedar Rapids WWII veteran honored by French government

World War II veteran Leon Mehring receives applause from family and friends after receiving the French Legion of Honor medal, the highest distinction the French government bestows, at American Legion Post 298 in Marion on Monday, March 11, 2019. (Alison Gowans/The Gazette)
World War II veteran Leon Mehring receives applause from family and friends after receiving the French Legion of Honor medal, the highest distinction the French government bestows, at American Legion Post 298 in Marion on Monday, March 11, 2019. (Alison Gowans/The Gazette)
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MARION — Almost 74 years since he flew a bombing mission over Belmont, France, on April 14, 1945, Leon Mehring, 93, received the highest distinction the French government bestows.

On Monday, during a ceremony at the American Legion Post 298 in Marion, Mehring’s son, retired Air Force Col. Stephen Mehring, pinned the French Legion of Honor medal onto his father’s jacket.

The medal is presented to service members who helped liberate France from the German army during World War II. A staff sergeant in the Eighth Air Force 305th Bombardment Group, Mehring served from Nov. 27, 1943, to April 23, 1946. On one of the 11 bombing missions he flew, he helped push German troops to retreat from the city of Belmont.

His wife Vera, 90, said she’s glad her husband is being recognized with the medal.

“I think it’s wonderful. He deserves a lot, because he’s been through a lot. Those missions were very dangerous,” she said.

Leon Mehring said the Eighth Air Force suffered more casualties than any other outfit in the war, with 769 men lost from the 305th Bombardment Group alone.

“We were considered expendable,” he said. “The average life expectancy was five missions.”

As the last surviving member of his crew of nine, he said he wanted to accept the medal on behalf of each of them, as well as in honor of the hundreds who died while serving with the 305th Bombardment Group.

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He said he wants younger generations to understand the gravity of war and what those serving went through.

“It’s a medal that a lot of people could have gotten, but a lot of people didn’t want to talk about the war. They want to forget it,” he said. “But I wanted people to know about my experiences. ... If you don’t tell your stories, the future generations won’t know them. People should know about the sacrifices that were made.”

A room at his home is filled with memorabilia from the war — photos and books, records and model airplanes. He used to have much more, he said, but donated most of what he had to museums when he and Vera sold their house to move into a smaller condominium.

Next to paintings of Air Force planes in his office hang completed puzzles — one of his hobbies, along with and knitting scarves for those in need. He said last year he made 75 scarves, donating them to the Catherine McAuley Center, the Catholic Worker House and All Saints Catholic Church.

He said he understands why many of his fellow veterans prefer not to ever talk about their experiences. He has flashbacks, still, and nights when he has trouble sleeping.

“It does haunt you at times,” he said.

Though talking about the war can make those memories stronger, he said it has also helped him process and come to terms with the past.

He was 16 years old when he was listening to big band music — his favorite at the time — and a song was interrupted with news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He volunteered for military service when he was 17, and on his 18th birthday was called up to enlist. He went to gunnery school before being deployed to the United Kingdom with the Eighth Air Force.

On his fifth mission, he was wounded when a shell exploded in his face after a gun malfunctioned. To this day, he still has trouble with bright lights and has to wear dark glasses when it’s sunny outside, a souvenir of the powder burns he suffered on his eyes and face.

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He met Vera while recovering from his injuries. She was an evacuee from London and met him at a British Legion dance. She has her own memories from the war years, including when one of her schools was bombed, killing a teacher and several pupils.

She was just 17 and Leon 19 when they married a few months later, on Oct. 20, 1945.

After 73 years of marriage, Vera offered advice to younger couples: “You have to stick it out. You have to stand by your convictions, you have to love each other, and you should never go to bed mad.”

The couple had six children, four of whom are still living, and 13 grandchildren, of whom 11 are still living. They also have 10 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandson.

Before the ceremony Monday, the award arrived from the French Consulate General in Chicago along with a letter signed by Consul General Guillaume Lacroix.

“Seventy-four years ago, you gave your youth to France and the French people. We will never forget. For us, the French people, you are a hero,” Guillaume wrote. “You saved my country. Thank you for your service.”

The consul general will travel to Cedar Rapids later this year for a formal ceremony for Mehring.

l Comments: (319) 398-8339, alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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