For most of Ernest Brien’s life, he was a gruff and stoic man. But in his last few decades, that changed. With the gentle encouragement of his son-in-law, he began to open up to his family about his heroic past serving in World War II and the Korean War. With that, he softened – and began to share his emotions and connect with his family in a way he never had before.

Ernest Brien, who died in late December at 103, was awarded the highest French decoration, the Legion of Honor, for his service in World War II. Photo courtesy of Warren and Kathleen Giering

A crowd of around 35 people gathered outside of Portland City Hall under sunny skies Saturday to celebrate Brien, a Portland native who died in late December at 103, as he was posthumously awarded the highest French decoration, the Legion of Honor, for his service in World War II.

The medal, which is given to those who have provided a significant public service to France in a civilian or military capacity, was presented to Brien’s family by the honorary consul of France in Maine, Alban Maino, and the president of the Alliance Francaise Maine, Regine Whittlesey.

“This medallion serves as a symbol of our enduring gratitude for the sacrifices he made and the unwavering courage he demonstrated in service to our country,” Maino said. “Through his service, he exemplified the highest values of honor, duty and patriotism.”

A total of 79,000 people have been awarded the Legion of Honor. On average, 2,000 French and 300 foreigners receive the honor each year.

Brien’s time in service was one of bravery. During his 19 years in the military, he helped liberate the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp; participated in the last major German offensive of the Western Front, the Battle of the Bulge; and put himself directly in harm’s way to the protect his platoon, according to his family and documents from the U.S. Army.


For these moments of valor, he received multiple accolades, including a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.

Ernest Brien has posthumously joined about 79,000 people who have earned the Legion of Honor. Photo courtesy of Warren and Kathleen Giering

But Brien was a humble man. He grew older, but his family didn’t hear these stories. They found out only a few years ago that he helped liberate a concentration camp, that he ran into machine gun fire to protect his fellow soldiers and hid in a trench for 21 days straight.

“I was just doing my job,” was always his reply when people brought up how he contributed to the war effort.

But when Brien’s wife died about 15 years ago and he moved in with his daughter and her husband, he began to share a little more.

Brien’s daughter, Kathleen Giering, credits her husband for that. From when he moved in with them up until the final months of his life, Brien helped Warren Giering, his son-in-law, manage his and Kathleen’s property. Together they built a stone fence, felled trees to heat their home – which is only heated by a wood stove – and took care of Warren’s perennial garden beds.

“Every day, we’d be out working,” Warren said.


During hours together on the tractor or working on the property, Warren would ask Brien questions about his life.

Slowly, he started to open up.

At first, he stayed away from the hardship and pain of the war. He avoided talking about his fearlessness and leadership and instead opted to tell funny anecdotes about trading goods and haggling with other troops.

“He was reluctant to tell everyone how brave he was,” his grandson Christopher Orr said.

But eventually, he began to share more about the hardship he faced – and his bravery in the face of danger.

“It was wonderful,” Kathleen said. “Even the bad things were wonderful because he trusted us enough to share these things.”


When Kathleen was young, her father was rough around the edges and intimidating.

“He really clearly struggled,” Kathleen said.

But by the end of his life, he was a different person.

“It was a beautiful growth,” she said.

Even as he opened up, he remained humble about his time in the war and didn’t want people to make a big fuss over it.

Still, the honor Saturday would have been meaningful to him, his granddaughter Erinne Brown said.

“He would have been very proud of this,” she said.

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