Royal Navy Second World War veteran Billy Cooke has been posthumously awarded the highest honour from the French Government – the Legion d’Honneur.
The award was granted to members of the British Forces who took part in the D-Day landings and had survived until the 70th anniversary on June 6 last year.
Billy – whose home was at Laurelvale – was a wireless operator aboard a tank landing craft at Sword and Omaha Beaches. He was just 18 at the time. Sadly, he died on June 5 this year and did not live to see his medal, which was sent from the French Embassy. But his wife Bertha and family treasure the hard-won award.
His craft was damaged on its first crossing and had to be towed back to ‘Blighty’, but he then took part in no fewer than seven crossings to Omaha Beach after repairs had been carried out. His most vivid memories were seeing dead bodies floating on the sea.
The last time the Portadown Times spoke to Billy Cooke, he was delighted that the French Government had decided – on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings (June last year) - to award the surviving veterans their highest honour.
He said, “It’s a great honour, and we’ll talk about it when it arrives.” Sadly, he didn’t live to receive the totally deserved accolade.
After D-Day, the young Billy Cooke was sent for duty to the Far East and the British Pacific Fleet, returning to the UK in November 1945 and was demobbed in March 1946. He remained a keen member of the Royal Navy Association and of Gilford Royal British Legion until his death.
He did receive the 70th anniversary medallion from the UK Government, which was presented by the then Armagh Lord Mayor and Colonel Arthur Reid. Said Colonel Reid, “It’s very sad that Billy passed away before the French medal arrived. He was a wonderful man.”