Orinda man receives French medal for World War II service
By Lou Fancher
If not for action taken by the President of France on Nov. 9, 2015, a World War II hero might have gone undetected in Orinda.
Honored as a Chevalier (Knight) of the Legion of Honor in a ceremony Jan. 20, at the French consulate in San Francisco, Francis Patrick Byrne was recognized with France's premier award. The Legion of Honor was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 to recognize outstanding service to France and actions taken to uphold its libertarian ideals.
Byrne, a 45-year resident of Orinda, was a radar technician aboard the USS Augusta. During the Normandy Invasion on D-Day, the 91-year-old native of Dublin, Ireland, was wounded before being transferred to a naval hospital in Philadelphia.
"To this day, I do not know how I got from France to spend six months in the Philadelphia hospital," Byrne says. "My face was disfigured. They said my arms were injured. I had trouble with my hands. I lost all my hearing and had back injuries. Today, I'm a 90 percent disabled veteran, service connected."
The quick summary is Byrne in a nutshell: factual, unreserved, and quick to dispel any notion that winning wars -- or awards -- is a simple process.
"How I got the medal is a story," Byrne says. "A friend of mine told me that my criteria would qualify. I had to go to the Consulate General, Pauline Carmona, in San Francisco and fill out about 10 pages of paperwork."
After that, the papers were sent to the French Embassy, approved and sent to the Legion of Honor committee in Paris.
"It took eight months to authenticate it all; then based on the President of France's judgment, he decided to nominate me. That's how I got the medal," Byrne says.
Actually, Byrne began to earn the medal when on his 17th birthday, Feb. 29, 1941, he enlisted in the Navy. Assigned to the heavy cruiser that hosted Gen. Omar Bradley during the Normandy Invasion, and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill for the Mid-Atlantic Conference, he was a radar technician, second class.
After the war, Byrne earned an electrical engineering degree from UC Berkeley and worked for Motorola. Receiving his masters in instructional technology from San Francisco State, he taught computer programming courses to gifted students in Alameda and to adults in continuing education programs in Piedmont.
At the ceremony attended by Byrne and his family at the consulate in San Francisco, Carmona said, "Today, we celebrated a hero whose courage, faith and dedication contributed, more than 70 years ago, to defend and preserve the independence of France and to save our common values: freedom, tolerance, democracy."
Asked for his definition of courage, Byrne says, "When you're in a battle station, you don't think of bravery or courage. You just do what you have to do. When the captain says 'man your battle stations,' you know that your life is in danger.
"When you're 18 or 19, you think this is a wonderful country and I'm protecting my family," he says. "Courage is something you think about when you're older."