Benny Arechiga is not only a hero to his family, friends and the United States for his service in the U.S. Army during World War II, but also to the country of France.
Arechiga, a life member of the Coon Rapids VFW who will turn 93 years old March 21, has been awarded the French Knight of the Legion of Honor medal, which “pays tribute to the soldiers who did so much for France and Western Europe” during World War II “and to show the eternal gratitude of the government of the French Republic,” according to the letter approving the award from Graham Paul, French consul general in Chicago, Ill.
In a ceremony at the Coon Rapids VFW Hall, which was packed with Arechiga’s family and friends Sunday, U.S. Sen. Al Franken pinned the medal on Arechiga, who was dressed in his U.S. Army uniform.
“This is an amazing honor, and I am honored and humbled to be here to recognize the service of Benny Arechiga to his country and entire world in World War II almost 70 years ago,” Franken said.
Arechiga is part of the Greatest Generation who helped liberate countries from “the worst enemy that we have ever faced,” according to Franken.
“Benny is a hero to me,” Franken said.
The Legion of Honor, established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, is France’s highest distinction. It’s an award given for distinguished merit or service rendered to France, and recipients include U.S. veterans who risked their lives during World War II to fight on French soil for the liberation of the nation.
Arechiga’s grandson, Michael Nordstrom, of Anoka, did the leg work to have his grandfather recognized, researching Arechiga’s wartime service as a member of the U.S. Army’s 12th Armored Division, known as the “Hellcats,” and the 493rd Field Artillery Battalion, Headquarters Battery, in which his grandfather served, and then writing to the French Consulate in Chicago Feb. 5, 2013, with the information.
It was something his grandfather said about the medal that prompted Nordstrom to undertake the project, he said.
He received notification that Arechiga would be awarded the honor from the French consul general in Chicago in January along with the medal itself, and his mother, Linda Nordstrom, one of Arechiga’s five children, set about organizing the ceremony and celebration, according to Nordstrom.
Arechiga was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 and spent some two years in training at various bases in the U.S. before being sent to England with his battalion in September 1944 and then across the English Channel to LeHavre in northwest France, Michael Nordstrom said.
As a private first class and tank crew member, both as a driver and machine gunner, Arechiga saw action at the Battle of the Bulge under Gen. George Patton and then at the bloody battle of Herrlisheim in Germany in the winter of 1944 and 1945, he said.
But it was for the 12th Armored Division’s liberation of the French city of Colmar Feb. 3, 1945, that Arechiga received the Legion of Honor medal, he said; the Germans were routed in what was their last stronghold in French territory.
Over the years, Arechiga has said little about his wartime combat – he would not talk about it with Nordstrom until he was 18, and then only a little bit, he said.
But the 12th Armored Division also liberated concentration camps in Germany and about that Arechiga won’t speak, Nordstrom said.
Arechiga told him, “We came back from the war, went to work, paid our bills and made a go of it,” according to Nordstrom. He considered it part of his civic duty and no big deal, Nordstrom said.
But Nordstrom said at the ceremony, which he conducted: “This is a very special honor for a very special person. It is recognition of his heroic acts.”
Arechiga, who emerged unscathed from World War II, has been awarded several medals, including the Bronze Star and the Croix Deguerre (Cross of War) from France, one of that country’s highest honors for “acts of heroism in combat.”
Arechiga had three brothers who also fought in World War II; one did not return. Manuel “Ducker” Arechiga, a private first class in the 349th Infantry, 88th Infantry Division, was killed in action in Italy in March 1944, according to Linda Nordstrom.
Arechiga was born in El Paso, Texas, on March 21, 1921. The family moved to Austin, Texas, and Arechiga lost his mother when he was 5 1/2 years old. When Arechiga’s father, Joseph, got a job working in the farm fields in Fargo, the family moved to North Dakota.
After his honorable discharge from the Army following World War II, Arechiga moved to the Twin Cities when he got a job with Hart Motor Company, where he was a dock worker until he retired in 1977.
He was also very active in the Teamsters and was one of the union’s top negotiators, said Linda Nordstrom.
The Arechigas lived in Northeast Minneapolis for many years, but his wife died in 1966 when she was 40 years old, Michael Nordstrom said.
“Benny never remarried and his life has revolved around his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” he said. “If someone needed help, Benny would provide it.”
Arechiga moved to Coon Rapids in 1970, then lived in Anoka for several years before moving to a nursing home in Osseo three years ago, according to Linda Nordstrom.
At the nursing home, Arechiga, who is wheelchair bound, lives across the street from his son, Manuel. He has four other children, Roger, who lives in Iowa, Sharon in Big Lake, Linda in Isanti and Sydney in Coon Rapids.
He also has 15 grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.
Family members came from across the country to attend Sunday’s ceremony. There were many from the Twin Cities area, but also from Frazee, Minn.; Fargo-Moorhead; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Oklahoma City, Okla.; Branson, Mo.; Houston, Texas; and Sioux Falls, S.D.
Sunday’s ceremony began when Arechiga was brought to the Coon Rapids VFW with an escort of Coon Rapids, Brooklyn Park, Osseo and Anoka police department squad cars and a Coon Rapids Fire Department engine.
Police officers and firefighters formed a guard of honor as Arechiga entered the VFW, where he was escorted to the seat of honor by retired Gen. Larry Shellito, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, and two U.S. Army members.
The Coon Rapids VFW Color Guard presented the colors and the Coon Rapids High School Band performed the French National Anthem, “Les Marseillaise.”
Besides the Legion of Honor presentation, the Rev. Shawn Phillips, Church of St. Timothy, blessed the medal with a prayer and by sprinkling water on it which, he said, had come from Lourdes, France. Great-granddaughter Kayle Arechiga, a sophomore at the School of the Ozarks, Branson, Mo., presented Arechiga with a pin from the school in appreciation of his service.
Great-granddaughter Danielle Nordstrom read a letter from Arechiga’s last surviving sibling, Susie Morales, who lives in California, while Amanda Nordstrom, another great-granddaughter, recognized all members of the Arechiga family who have served their country in the military from World War II to the present. A poppy was presented to each veteran in attendance.
According to Linda Nordstrom, Arturo Manuel Munoz, Arechiga’s great-grandson, who served two tours of duty in Iraq while in the military from 2005 to 2011, was scheduled to be at the ceremony, but he is recovering from severe injuries he received in the Exxon Oil explosion in Texas, for which he has undergone 12 operations.
She created a quilt detailing the military service of members of the Arechiga family.
Arechiga did not speak at the ceremony, but he did sing along to the music of the Mariachi Jalisco band that performed following the ceremony and during the meal prepared by the Coon Rapids VFW Ladies Auxiliary.