Dean Larson saw the Statue of Liberty twice.
He saw it the first time in 1944 as he was leaving New York City on a ship bound for England at the start of World War II, and again in 1945 when he returned at the end of the war.
"I knew France gave us that Statute of Liberty," Larson said during an honorary ceremony at the Utah State Capitol on Thursday, "and I have a lot of love for that statue."
France also has love for Larson.
A representative of the French government on Thursday presented the 90-year-old veteran with the French Legion of Honor Medal for his service in the war. The medal is France’s highest honor. Larson also receives the rank of knight within the Legion of Honor.
Larson fought the war without ever setting foot on French soil. He flew aboard a B1-17 bomber for the Army Air Corps, and all the missions launched from and returned to England. Larson was a ball turret gunner. The cramped turret and its .50-caliber machine guns sat underneath the aircraft to repel attacking fighters.
Larson flew 33 missions. On his 15th mission, to Bordeaux, France, flak damaged his turret and wounded him.
Larson received a discharge in October of 1945. He received the purple heart for being wounded, as well as two bronze stars and a list of other commendations.
At Thursday’s ceremony, Marie-Helene Glon, honorary consul for France in Utah, told Larson his service changed human history and deepened the ties between the United States and France.
"You rescued people you did not know," Glon told Larson, "but you can be sure they have not forgotten you."
Glon pinned the medal on Larson’s lapel and kissed his cheeks as his family and dignitaries applauded.
Larson’s son, Roger Larson, a Vietnam War veteran, relayed to the audience a story his father told him about approaching enemy territory. Temperatures in the B1-17 were below zero, yet Larson and his crew mates would sweat from the fear.
"Each mission the fear was worse because he experienced more and more things," Roger Larson said.
One of those things, the son said, was sitting in the turret and seeing his friend’s plane shot out of the air.
Dean Larson hadn’t planned to speak, but his son handed him the microphone to tell the Statute of Liberty story.
Larson was born in the town of Central, Idaho, in 1923. He settled in Utah after the war
On April 18, 1946, he married Dorothy L. Campbell. The couple has five children, 16 grandchildren and 40 great-grandchildren.
France gave the same honor last year to Emanuel Mike Kladis, 91, of Salt Lake City. Kladis drove a truck onto Omaha Beach on D-Day and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
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