For most of her life, Ellen McKinney heard her father, Robert Hibbs, defer any attention regarding his military service.
Hibbs served in the Army during World War II; his focus was communications, and he also served as a Jeep driver. Praise was not to be heaped upon him, he told his daughter.
“That’s for heroes,” McKinney remembered her father saying.
Last Thursday, Hibbs was recognized as a hero, much to his daughter’s delight.
Hibbs received the French Legion of Honor Medal at a ceremony in Boise. The award is bestowed upon World War I and World War II veterans who served in France, following an application process.
It marked the second time in 2019 — the year in which the 75th anniversary of the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion is being recognized — that an Idaho veteran was awarded the French Legion of Honor Medal. In February, 99-year-old Emil Reich was honored in a ceremony at the Idaho Capitol. He was part of the first wave of Allied soldiers to land at Omaha Beach.
Surrounded by friends and family in Downtown Boise last week, the 95-year-old Hibbs couldn’t help but smile.
“It’s very much a surprise,” Hibbs said. “When we got the paperwork all done and we got through it, I didn’t think I was eligible for it.”
Hibbs and Reich are part of what’s been called The Greatest Generation, whose members preserved democracy in WWII. And their numbers are naturally dwindling. There were more than 16 million members of the U.S. armed forces during the war, and as of last September, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that about 490,000 were still alive.
Their stories, however, should not be forgotten.
Reich’s grandson, Ryan Hand, said his grandfather never spoke in specifics regarding his time overseas, nor did he express a desire to return to Europe. When watching the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” Reich had to leave the room, Hand said.
But the things Reich did share showed a clear conviction and moral compass worthy of following, Hand said.
“He didn’t talk openly about what those things were. They were always in generalities. But they were always infused with a clear-eyed sense of (right and wrong),” Hand said. “He instilled his values in my mom and myself growing up, (that) violence is not the answer to a bunch of questions, but there are things worth fighting for. And he had a really clear sense of what those things were.”
Hibbs was a member of the ROTC at the University of Florida and chose to enlist in the Army Reserves in 1942, knowing it was either that or get drafted. He became a member of the 94th Infantry Division and rode aboard the Queen Elizabeth.
On his 21st birthday in 1944, Hibbs entered Utah Beach. His regiment fought in the Battle of the Bulge in 1945 in Germany, and he finished his service abroad in Czechoslovakia.
Hibbs was honorably discharged in December 1945 and was awarded a Bronze Star and a Combat Infantry Badge. Reich received a pair of Purple Hearts for injuries sustained.
It’s of the utmost importance for such veterans to share some of their experiences, McKinney said. Their stories could shape present and future generations.
“I think (WWII) was a turning point for the world, not just our nation. Recognizing where we are today in the lens of that time, it’s personally a little alarming some of the things that are happening,” she said. “Maybe we’re forgetting a little bit why these men were in Europe. It’s important.”
After his service, Hibbs finished his degree at Florida and received a master’s in dairy products manufacturing and bacteriology. He later received his doctorate at Washington State and started an independent testing lab in Boise.
Hibbs and his wife, Lois, were married for 66 years before she died in 2018. They had six children.
On hand to present the award to Hibbs was Hortense Everett, the French honorary consul for Idaho. As she read her speech to the crowd, Everett’s eyes began welling with tears.
“Your accomplishment during the war is a vibrant reminder of the friendship between France and the United States. A friendship bound in blood and hardships,” Everett said. “Freedom is a gift that does not come for free. It requires courage and bravery.
“Your courage and your bravery are the reason why the president of the French republic decided to award you the highest French recognition.”
Hibbs vividly remembers his time overseas. He reminisces about riding the Queen Elizabeth to Scotland with 15,000 other troops, where rooms meant for three people were instead filled with 46. He said he enjoys going to his regiment’s reunions, where they share memories of unyielding weather conditions.
Hibbs has been attending reunions since 1946.
“The main thing we remember when we get together is how cold it was. … We weren’t really dressed for it,” Hibbs said.
Hibbs also remembers with intricate detail one of the times he nearly died. Artillery began raining down overhead, and Hibbs said he was lying in the snow, a helmet on one side of his head and his telephone on the other. After the strike ended, he got up, shook off the shrapnel and went on his way.
“They had my phone number, but they didn’t have my number,” he said with a laugh.
For most of her life, McKinney said her father did not mention specifics of his service. In fact, McKinney said she had not heard the story of him prone in the snow. But over the past 15 years or so, Hibbs has opened up, even taking his family on a battlefield tour. Tom Brokaw’s book, “The Greatest Generation,” was a major reason for Hibbs finding his voice, McKinney said.
Honoring veterans for their sacrifices and hearing their stories is of the utmost importance, Hand said.
“I’ve had a lot of admiration for (Reich) for a really long time, and not because he’s a World War II veteran, but because of him being a really good grandfather,” he said. “And to see that be acknowledged by someone as notable as as the French government, it’s really special. It’s something that my family and I are incredibly grateful for.”
McKinney is grateful for what her father has shared in recent years, though she knows it is only the tip of the iceberg.
“Even growing up knowing he was a veteran, we didn’t get it,” she said. “I think we’re getting 1 percent of it, because it’s so big.”