Estevan veteran receives France’s highest distinction for service in Second World War

Photo from Wanda Harron Photography. Ambassador of France to Canada, Michel Miraillet presenting the the insignia of "Knight of the French National Order of the Legion of Honour" to Estevan-born Canadian Veteran Jim Spenst on Tuesday, December 5 2023 in Estevan.

by Trillian Reynoldson

Regina Leader-Post

Estevan-born veteran Jim Spenst was proud to receive the insignia of the Knight of the French National Order of the Legion of Honour — France’s highest distinction — for his contribution to the liberation of France during the Second World War.

“I didn’t think in 1941 that I would be receiving it. I was 15 years old at the time,” the now 97-year-old said in an interview Friday. “I was proud to get this medal, I didn’t expect it. Now I’m a French knight.”

He received the medal from his son Daryl last year, but on Tuesday French ambassador to Canada Michel Miraillet officially presented it to him during a ceremony at the Legion in Estevan. The decoration of Spenst comes nearly 80 years after D-Day, an invasion he took part in that liberated France and then the rest of Western Europe from the armies of Nazi Germany.

Spenst said he has both good and bad memories, and still has dreams about his time in the Second World War.

“We had some tough times, we had some good times, but now we laugh about it because it’s over,” he said. “There was a war, and that’s all I can say. We were nervous for a while and after that it was just a regular job.”

Spenst said he began at the North Battleford infantry in 1941 and then joined a reserve unit, the Battleford Light Infantry, in May 1942. They trained in Meadow Lake and Dundurn. He then went to Red Deer to join the Royal Canadian Service Corps in November 1943.

He trained in Canada until he was shipped to the United Kingdom in June 1944. Two months later he was in France supporting the Canadian army advance. 

He said his brother, who was with the Regina Rifles, lost his legs shortly after the invasion.

“He was one of the guys who started it, and I guess I had to help carry it on,” he said, adding not many of the Regina Rifles made it home.

“I don’t know how many of the originals from our unit (made it back), but I think they’re probably all gone now too. I’m pretty well one of the last ones alive.”

Spenst stayed in Europe until December 1945 at which point he was demobilized and transferred back to Canada. He was discharged in March 1946. 

“I met my brother on the boat in Halifax, I didn’t even know he was on the boat,” he said.

Spenst said they spent some time in Regina, where his older brother ran a mink farm. The three of them ended up volunteering to go to Canadian Vocational Training in Moose Jaw. There, Spenst was trained in auto body repair and got a job at Public Works.

He moved to Estevan in 1948, but returned to Regina in 1949. He moved back to Estevan in 1951, where he has stayed ever since.

Spenst joined the Estevan branch of the Royal Canadian Legion in 1952 and has stayed an active member, holding many different positions including president, and first and second vice president. He has been on the poppy committee and has campaigned for around 40 years. 

He has kept busy during his post-war years coaching junior baseball and umpiring for around 15 years. He also helped coach junior football and took a team to Penawa, Manitoba. The team won and he received a certificate of Merit from the Junior Football Association for outstanding work with all junior sports in Estevan.

Spenst said he helped build the Elks Club, which would raise money for charities like the Purple Cross for sick or disabled children. He joined the Elks Club in 1955 and became Exalted Ruler in 1967.

Veterans that helped liberate the French during WWII have been honoured since 2014. Nearly 1,300 veterans have received the medal during ceremonies across the country, including 51 in Saskatchewan.