Bethel Park man named Chevalier of the Legion of Honor

Published Jun 10, 2014 at 10:00 am (Updated Jun 10, 2014 at 10:00 am)

August “Ted” Pace of Bethel Park loves his country so much that when he was ineligible to join the U.S. Navy during World War II because of a minor health issue, he marched across the hall to another recruiting station and promptly join the U.S. Merchant Marines. He’d never seen the ocean or been on a boat and really knew nothing about the Merchant Marines, but his country was at war and he felt it was his patriotic duty to serve. He was 18 years old and it was 1943. World War II was in full swing and for three years, Pace worked as an engineer on the S.S. Cristobal, a converted luxury cruise ship used to transport 5,000 U.S. Army soldiers to Europe and Africa to fight the war.

The day after joining the Merchant Marines, Pace found himself in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., where he was trained for six weeks by members of the U.S. Coast Guard.

During his three years in the Merchant Marines, Pace made nine Atlantic Ocean crossings on the S.S. Cristobal. Pace, who turned 90 in May, worked in the engine room and rarely, if ever, intermingled with the 5,000 U.S. troops. Once the soldiers were unloaded in Europe or Africa, German prisoners were placed on the transport ship for the return trip to New York City, Pace said.

“There was no need for security,” Pace said as he sat in the comfortable dining room of his Bethel Park apartment in which he’s lived since 1970. “(The German soldiers) were happy to be there. We were on a ship, there was no place they could go even if they wanted too. We even let them paint the ship.”

One of the ports to which Pace sailed was Marceau, France.

“We landed in the harbor of Marceau, France, when the city was still under German fire. Most of the ships in the harbor were sunk by the Germans,” Pace recalled of the voyage. “We were able to unload 5,000 soldiers in a period of two days with German sharpshooters on the roof tops firing. I am sure our soldiers were a tremendous help to drive the Nazis away from Marceau.”

For his service, on June 3 Pace was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, “as a sign of France’s gratitude for your personal contribution to the liberation of our country during World War II.”

The honor has been a long time coming – Pace applied for the medal 10 years ago.

During the transports, Pace said the S.S. Cristobal was part of a 100-ship convey and, because it was carrying soldiers, was always in the middle of the group, as far away from German torpedoes as possible. And while the soldiers being transported had weapons, Pace, as a member of the Merchant Marines, never handled a gun.

“When you are young, you don’t get scared as much,” he said.

In addition to France, Pace was part of the crew that transported solders – never cargo – to ports in Africa, Italy, Scotland and England. As far as he knows, France is the only country to bestow honors on soldiers, Marines or Merchant Marines who served during World War II more than 70 years ago.

Although the S.S. Cristobal was never struck by enemy fire, some of his worst memories are from soldiers being seasick during the voyages. The men may have slept in bunks eight high, but the Merchant Marines had their own quarters. The only time Pace said he was ever seasick was when he was fishing on Lake Erie in a small boat.

Spending three years in the Merchant Marines only increased his love of the sea.

“I love the ocean and I love boats,” he said. “I try to go to the ocean for vacations. We just got back from Aruba to celebrate my 90th birthday.”

He went with his wife of more than 30 years, Carolyn Pace. They have a blended family of nine children and are great-great-grandparents.

Pace is still an active member at the American Legion Post 6664 in Bethel Park. What he can’t be is a member of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post – until a few years ago, members of the Merchant Marines were not considered veterans by the U.S. Government. But that didn’t stop Pace from forming the South Hills Veterans Honor Guard in June of 2000. The 20-member honor guard from American Legion Post 6664 and VFW Post 760 performs full military honors for about 300 veterans’ funerals a year, with Pace calculating more than 3,000 funerals since the honor guard’s inception. He is the bugler, and with his long white pony tail, is known as the “Bugler with the pony tail.”

Not considered a veteran after the end of World War II, Pace and other Merchant Marines were not eligible for the GI Bill, so he returned to his native North Side of Pittsburgh and went to work with his father at Pace’s Dairy, a small dairy and luncheonette. He later opened Pace’s Coffee Shop, the Pace’s Restaurant and also a hot dog shop, all in the Oakland area. For 25 years, he owned and operated the Mona Lisa Restaurant in Brentwood, specializing in banquets and weddings. That’s where he met his wife Carolyn.

Upon retiring, Pace became involved in the honor guard.

“This is something that has to be done,” he said.

Once a month, Pace and his fellow Merchant Marines meet at a restaurant in the Galleria of Mt. Lebanon, and, even at the age of 90, he marches in the Canonsburg Fourth of July Parade. Add that to his more than 300 veterans’ funerals a year, Pace is kept busy.

As for the honor of being named a Chevalier by the French government, Pace said “It was a tremendous day.”

The ceremony was held in the Hall of Valor at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, Oakland, where Pace served on the board of directors for 10 years.

Carolyn Pace said the ceremony was “so impressive” and described the medal as “the most beautiful medal I’ve ever seen.”

Pace is permitted to wear the medal on the uniform he dons for the honor guard ceremonies, along with the other medals he earned during World War II, but he’s decided to have the clasp reinforced.

He may never have handled a gun, or been in intense battles, but Ted Pace is proud of his service to the country he loves, and is pleased to call himself a veteran.

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