Belgian Princess Honors Texas A&M Former Student, World War II Hero
A couple of years after earning an architecture degree from Texas A&M University, former Aggie corpsman William Merriweather Peña ’42 led a heavy weapons platoon through the dense snow covered forests of Germany and Belgium, helping to win one of World War II’s bloodiest and most decisive engagements, the Battle of the Bulge, and fighting on with Allied troops to liberate Belgium.
On Dec. 7, 2016, 72 years later, Belgium thanked Peña, presenting him its second highest order of Chivalry, the Commander in the Order of the Crown. The award was bestowed amid a flurry of fanfare by Princess Astrid of Belgium with a host of international dignitaries looking on at Texas A&M’s Rudder Theatre.
The award ceremony preceded the formal opening of “Texas Aggies Go To War,” a multimedia exhibit preview currently on display at the Memorial Student Center. The exhibit honors Peña and four fellow Aggie WWII heroes who exemplify the dedication and sacrifice representative of all Aggies who served in the war.
“The courage and selflessness that Captain Peña demonstrated to liberate our nation will always be remembered and commemorated,” said Dirk Wouters, Belgium’s ambassador to the United States. “We’ve chosen never to forget the bravery and sacrifices of many Americans like him.”
Wouters also lauded Peña’s legendary architectural career as a pioneer in programming, a process that provides the general direction a building’s design should take after a client’s goals and needs are determined.
Princess Astrid placed the Order of the Crown medal on Peña as the audience stood and applauded.
During the ceremony, Texas A&M University President Michael K. Young, who spoke of the close ties between the U.S. and Belgium, accepted the Walloon Merit Award from His Excellency Jean-Claude Marcourt, vice-president and minister of economy, industry, innovation and new technologies of the Walloon Region Government, a primarily French-speaking area in southern Belgium.
Following the presentations, the dignitaries headed to the MSC’s Veterans Lounge where they officially opened “Texas Aggies Go To War”, a display previewing of a much larger show scheduled August – December 2017 in the J. Wayne Stark Galleries.
The preview exhibit recounts the wartime stories of five former students, including Peña, who was deployed to Europe in September 1944 after beginning officer training school the day after he graduated from Texas A&M.
After the Battle of the Bulge Peña lost a leg from a mine explosion while repairing an Allied communications line in Germany. His book, “As Far As Schleiden*,” recounts his wartime experiences.
Also featured are James Earl Rudder, the future Texas A&M president who led a group of U.S. Army Rangers who performed one of the war’s greatest feats, scaling the 90-foot cliffs at Normandy’s Pointe du Hoc under heavy enemy fire to help secure an Allied victory on D-Day.
The other Aggies soldiers featured are James Hollingsworth, a tank commander under Gen. George Patton, Turney Leonard, who lost an arm in a shell explosion and later died on the battlefield, and Joe Routt, who was killed while leading his infantry company. Peña is the only living honoree.
The full exhibit, which debuted in Belgium in 2014, is sponsored by the Texas A&M University System and municipal and corporate sponsors in the United States and Belgium. It expresses Belgians’ gratitude for the U.S. role in the war, which launched an era of diplomatic and economic cooperation between the two nations.
The day’s events, including the signing of agreements deepening ties between Texas A&M and Belgium, were part a weeklong, four-city Belgian economic mission in Texas.
The Commander in the Order of the Crown honor was the latest in a long line of awards that Peña has received for his wartime service and groundbreaking architectural career.
In 2013, he received France’s highest honor, the medal of Chevalier of the National Order of the Legion of Honour, during a 2013 Veterans Day ceremony held at Minute Maid Park in Houston, for his role in liberating France in World War II.
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