M.Y. "Bo" Foster was never one to flaunt his incredible war record.
On Tuesday night, France did it for him.
In a jam-packed Heritage Hall at Fort Missoula, the 97-year-old World War II hero received one of the rarest of wartime accolades - the French Legion of Honor Chevalier.
"This is a tremendous honor. I still don't believe it, but there it is. My goodness," Foster said after some 180 people rose to their feet to honor him.
The honor that was started by Napoleon in 1803 is considered France's highest, the equivalent of the U.S. Medal of Honor. Just one other Montanan has ever worn the medal. Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow, a Crow tribal historian who also served in the U.S. Army in World War II, received his Chevalier in June 2008.
The medal joins the U.S. Silver Star that Foster received for valor during the Allied invasion of southern France on Aug. 15, 1944, and the Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster he was awarded after serving 18 months during and after the war in Italy, France, Germany and Austria.
Col. Matt Quinn of the Montana National Guard gave a tribute to Foster, and Chantal Davoine-Moser of Missoula, representing the French Consulate, presented the award.
Quinn read a letter from Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who was lined up to appear but had to change his plans when his schedule "was completely blown out of the water," Quinn explained.
Schweitzer sent the Montana Governor's Citation and called Foster "one of our most respected citizens."
"I'm honored and humbled to join those of you gathered this evening in commending Gen. Foster and in paying the huge debt of thanks we owe this extraordinary Montanan," the governor wrote.
City Councilman Dick Haines read a proclamation from Mayor John Engen that made July 22, 2009, Brig. Gen. Bo Foster Day in Missoula.
Haines' voice cracked when he turned to Foster and asked if he'd accept Haines' salute "for what you've done for this country."
The two exchanged salutes.
"Thank you," the general said.
Foster's eyes welled on a number of occasions during the 40-minute ceremony, but the gentle sense of humor the Yale graduate has shared with Missoulians for 70 years was alive and well.
His fascination with France began at an early age, he said.
"In the third grade in Cleveland, Ohio, I sang 'The Marseillaise.' Where I learned it or why or when, I have absolutely no idea," he said. "It turned out the whole lower school heard me sing it."
As pilot of a tiny, unarmed observer plane in first Italy and later France, Foster sought out artillery targets and directed fire on enemy positions from 1,500 to 2,000 feet - just above the range of enemy small arms fire. He was battalion liaison officer to the French Expeditionary Corps as the U.S. 36th Infantry Division battled its way across France and into Germany in the final year of the war, liberating the German death camp at Landsburg and the Dachau concentration camp near Munich.
After the war, Foster served with the Montana Army National Guard, where he formed the artillery units in western Montana. In 1963, he became brigadier general of the Guard and served until his retirement in 1971.
"Brigadier General Foster did not have an ordinary career by any stretch of the imagination, in the U.S. Army or the Montana Guard," Quinn said. What Foster did in forming the Guard artillery battalion based out of Missoula, at a time when the military was cutting back on troops, "was nothing short of extraordinary."
Foster was greeted by legions of well-wishers at the reception, including Army Col. Sam Roberts of Missoula, who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
"It's a great thing, and unusual, and really reigns great, in my thought, on Montana," said Roberts, who as an ROTC officer at the University of Montana spent 1940 in the post commander residence across the parade ground that was named for Foster in 2003.
As the crowd dwindled, Foster shook his head.
"I can't believe it yet, the turnout," he said. "I'm kind of worn out, but overwhelmed by all of it. It's still kind of unreal to me, but I guess it'll sink in."