80 years ago, Rene Champagne graduated from Hahnville High School and enlisted in the Navy, going on to preserve and protect the freedoms of the United States against the Axis Powers of Germany and Japan in World War II.
On his 97th birthday, the great veteran was honored at his high school alma mater by the JROTC at Hahnville. The cadets customized a WWII ball cap with Champagne’s name and PCE-843 – his WWII patrol craft – emblazoned on it.
“I really appreciate all the cadets have done for me over the years and I’ll never forget this moment,” Champagne said.
Sgt. Richard Lochren, Air Force JROTC instructor at Hahnville High School, said a few tears were shared as the cadets showed their appreciation for a true hometown hero.
“We try to instill being better citizens and doing the right thing with our cadets,” Lochren said. “And what better example (than Champagne) … kids can have a tendency to forget about the folks who made the sacrifices for them to have the freedoms they have, so it’s great to be able to have a moment for some young people to show their appreciation. It was really nice for our cadets to get to meet him.
“There’s not many left from World War II, and we were so lucky to be able to speak with him.”
Members of Hahnville’s choir class sang happy birthday to Champagne, who enjoyed the day greatly.
“He’s the nicest guy in the world … he’s always got a smile on his face,” Lochren said. “He’s been wanting to find a hat with his boat on it, and they don’t have those available so we had it custom made. It was awesome to see him with that.”
The day also provided for some valuable lessons.
“A lot of these students are learning about World War I and World War II in school now, so actually having a person who lived through it, reinforcing what they’ve learned in school is great,” Lochren said.
From Norfolk, Va., Champagne went to Key West, Fla., and from there he was placed on a PCE-843 patrol escort vessel. It was a small craft with a crew of 110. Its travels included Bora Bora island and onto Hollandia, the capital of Netherlands New Guinea, as well as to stops that included the Philippines, Borneo (the largest island in Asia) and Guam.
Champagne also served during the beginning of nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll, involving a series of 23 nuclear devices detonated by the U.S. between 1946 through 1958. He was on patrol when the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, the first on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 and then two days later on Nagasaki. After the war ended on Sept. 2, 1945, Champagne continued to serve on weather patrol.