PERRY, Iowa – When Mahlon Conaway was just 19 years old, he was sent overseas to France to fight in World War II. That was in 1944; about 70 years later, the nation he was sent to help liberate from the Nazi Regime is recognizing him with its highest honor.
“It still hasn’t fully sunk in yet,” Conaway said.
The National Order of the Legion of Honor was founded by Napoleon Bonaparte over 200 years ago, in 1802. It’s stood the test of time as France’s premier award, given to those the nation honors most. Mahlon Conaway, of Perry, Iowa, will be one of those people this Memorial Day.
“It’s not even an honor for just my dad, it’s for all the brave soldiers who fought for our country and theirs,” said Julie Boyles, Conaway’s daughter.
Boyles says her father wasn’t always so vocal about World War II; it wasn’t until about 20 years ago, during a family Christmas gathering, that her father spoke up.
“‘Do you know where I was on this day 50 years ago?'” Boyles recalls her father asking. “‘In a medical facility in France.”
Boyles says to this day, she can’t fathom what her father – and so many others – went through. Several years ago, she agreed to type out Conaway’s war memories – already handwritten – and was floored by the first line of one day’s entry.
“‘Today I thought I was going to die,'” she recalled reading from his account. “I thought to myself, ‘He was 19 years old. I can’t imagine my own children going through that at that age.'”
Conaway has talked about World War II to schools and other groups in his community since he first opened up to his family about it about 20 years ago.
“Dad shared with students research he had done on the backgrounds of U.S. soldiers who are buried in France’s military cemeteries, describing their pre-war lives,” Boyles said. “Dad and several of his friends from Perry who also were World War II vets returned to France in 2001. After they returned, I remember Dad telling me how much the French people still are so thankful for the U.S. soldiers of World War II saving their country.”
Conaway recalls injuring his leg while liberating a French town with about 80 others during the war, and how well he was treated by the Frenchmen who helped him get medical help.
“They were just so thankful, it’s all they could do to show their thanks,” he said. “They had only been liberated from the Nazis for about three hours at that point, and they treated me like I solely had saved them – even though I was only one of around 80. But it was all they could do at the moment to show how grateful they were.”
But today, in 2015, they can certainly do something else; this Memorial Day, Mahlon Conaway will be one of two Iowans receiving the Legion of Honor award from the nation of France, via the French Consulate in Chicago. The other Iowan receiving the award is from Des Moines, and though Conaway says they’ve never met or spoken, he’s looking forward to doing so at the award ceremony.