OGDEN, Utah — The Statue of Liberty will always hold an extra special place in Dean Larson’s heart.
He stared at it sadly while it faded into the horizon as the Queen Elizabeth troop transport ship took him off to fight in World War II. The great statue welcomed him back after his duty was done, having completed 33 bombing missions in Europe as a ball turret gunner on a B-17 bomber.
“When I left the United States, I was watching the Statue of Liberty fade out and disappear,” Larson said Wednesday. “When I came back, I saw [it] in the distance getting bigger. I was very happy to see that statue again.”
Larson’s connection to what was a gift from France to the United States is fitting, because in many ways, Larson was a gift to the French.
On Thursday, the 90-year-old West Haven resident will be awarded the French Legion of Honor in the Gold Room of the Utah Capitol building for the merit and bravery he exhibited while fighting on French territory during the war.
Larson entered the Army Air Corps on April 23, 1943, at the height of World War II. He was soon assigned to his position in the B-17 ball turret, which was found in the belly of the aircraft and was very small in order to reduce drag. The ball turret was typically operated by the shortest man on a bomber crew.
After training in Pyote, Texas, Larson’s crew was stationed in Deenthorpe Air Base in England. Of the 33 combat missions Larson flew, two came on June 6, 1944 to the coast of Normandy on D-Day.
D-Day was the largest seaborne invasion in history, and the operation signified the beginning of the invasion of German-occupied western Europe. It led to the restoration of the French Republic and contributed immensely to an Allied victory in the war.
"We didn’t know it was coming until we got on our plane and started flying across the English Channel,“ Larson said of that day’s historic events. ”And I didn’t realize (the historical significance) immediately.”
But Larson said it didn’t take long to understand that he had participated in one of the world’s most important events.
"Eventually, I realized what it meant,“ he said. ”"But when I first came home I didn’t like to even talk about it. It was years before I started telling people about it. But I’m very proud.“
While D-Day stands out among his bombing missions, Larson’s body of work in Europe extends beyond that particular operation.
On his 14th mission — which was to Bordeaux, France — Larson suffered wounds to his leg after a flak burst in his ball turret. When his damaged plane came back to England and was taxied waiting for an ambulance, his crew got out and started counting holes in the aircraft from the flak burst. They got as high as 500 when the ambulance arrived and they stopped counting. They had only covered about a quarter of the plane.
Larson said he was ”always“ worried before bombing missions, but the naivety of youth helped him a little bit.
"I was only 21 or 22 and I think in my youth I didn’t quite realize the danger,” he said.
Larson said he only learned about the French Legion of Honor Award, which was established during the French Revolution by Napoleon Bonaparte, a few months ago and was completely caught off guard when he heard the news.
"It was a big surprise for me,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
In addition to the Legion of Honor award, Larson will be appointed to the rank of Knight of the Legion.
“We can never repay the men and women who risked their lives to protect our liberties and fight for justice, but we can give them our thanks,” said Utah Gov. Gary Herbert in a statement. “It’s an honor to see selfless people like Dean Larson being recognized with France’s highest distinction for his years of service and sacrifice.”
For his military service, Larson has received the Combat Crew Wings, the Purple Heart, five Air Medals, Campaign Medal with two bronze stars for Normandy and Rhineland air offense, Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation and World War II Victory Medal.
He was separated from the Army Air Corps on Oct. 2, 1945. On April 18, 1946, he married Dorothy L. Campbell. The couple has 5 children, 16 grandchildren and 40 greatgrandchildren.
"His whole generation was ’all in’ as Americans and they did whatever they had to to stop tyranny in the world,“ said Larson’s son, Roger Larson. ”I’m awfully proud of my dad.“