D-Day heroes our pride and joy
Looking at the sprightly pensioners - the youngest aged 90 - who received the Legion D'Honneur yesterday, it is difficult to think these were men who stared death in the face so that all of us could live in freedom. They look like, and indeed are, grandfathers and great-grandfathers, but in their day they showed remarkable courage to defeat the scourge of Nazism.
Some 23 out of a total of 31 were present at the ceremony in Lisburn to receive France's highest military honour in recognition of their part in the D-Day landings 72 years ago, an event that changed the course of the war.
The landings are still regarded as one of the outstanding military manoeuvres of the Second World War, but at the time it was Hell on Earth for those who took part. Imagine wading ashore in the face of withering gunfire, unsure of the strength of the forces ranged against you but charged with securing the beach at all costs.
Take one of those veterans, George Thompson, originally from Comber, who was in the leading group that landed on the beach and whose duty was to guide the main forces ashore. He was in an advance party of 100, only four of whom survived. And he was little more than a boy, who celebrated his 18th birthday on that deadly strip of sand.
Another veteran who landed on the same beach, James McCune from Co Armagh, recalled how a large quantity of recovered ammunition suddenly exploded, spraying deadly shrapnel over the Allied forces.
These men, and those who died before receiving their medals, were heroes. They did not have to serve in the armed forces as conscription was never introduced in Northern Ireland, but they felt it was their duty to confront a foe who threatened to subjugate all of Europe.
But they are modest heroes. They have seen the horror of war and realise it is something best consigned to history. They only speak of their own part when asked, and are genuinely delighted and honoured to receive their medals from a country grateful for their part in its liberation.
Each year the number of veterans of that conflict grow fewer and fewer, but just as the French have not forgotten their actions, neither should we. Their bravery helped create the Europe of today where countries which were once mortal enemies now work together to confront fresh foes.