July 1 was no ordinary day for Boyd Sorenson of Waite Park, or his family, friends and others who gathered to celebrate him. It was the day he was awarded the Legion of Honor, the highest French order of merit, for his exceptional World War II service and role in the liberation of France. France’s Consul General to the Midwest Region, Guillaume Lacroix, traveled from Chicago to Waite Park to honor Sorenson and present him with the Legion of Honor medal.
The National Order of the Legion of Honor was established in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte and it recognizes eminent service to the French Republic.
Sorenson, who recently turned 97, flew 89 combat missions over Europe during the war and was a participant in the Normandy, Northern France and Air Offensive Europe campaigns. He flew a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter plane and on D-Day, June 6, 1944, he provided air cover for the Allied troops who crossed the English Channel in choppy seas and landed on the beaches of Normandy to begin Operation Overlord and liberate Nazi-occupied Europe. The 75th anniversary of D-Day was held this past June.
Sorenson recently recalled some memories of that day. After months of preparation, there were many rumors that Invasion Day was coming in the late spring of 1944. When the orders came down, Sorenson said they had not had much sleep. They had breakfast, were briefed and headed out.
“I had two missions,” he said. “There were low, dark black clouds that day. It was bad weather.” He described his worst scare as flying in formation, “real tight,” and only being able to see part of his wingtip. A lot of things went wrong that day.
“Have you ever heard of a ‘snafu’?” he asked. That’s how he described the loss of so many tanks and jeeps, sinking in the high waves of the English Channel. “We eventually got out of the beachhead and pushed inland, but we lost a lot of men.”
After his first mission, Sorenson had returned to his base and was preparing for his second mission. “But I didn’t go.” He explained, “They had decided that some of us needed to stay behind instead of going on another mission, because, at the time, it was believed that the Germans might attack England. So some of us stayed back.”
Sorenson kept detailed records of all of his missions—dates, the type of aircraft he flew, and his duties, including dive-bombing, providing escorts, area patrol and skip bombing. His accounts surrounding D-Day include the losses of his friends. He pointed out their names listed in some of his notes—Germany—2 hits by flak; Targets-Northern Germany, (Lost Reese); No Excitement, Beautiful weather; From Belgium-No Nothin’ (Lost O’Connell). On that one page, he had written down the names, Reese, Jueheim, O’Connell, Mundy, Silsby and Motsenbocker-roommate. Those were painful losses for him. Seventy-five years later, Sorenson may speak about his wartime experiences, but he doesn’t seek attention, because, he said, he did way less than others.
His mother kept a scrapbook with news clippings of wartime events, including her son’s awards and his daring feats. In one article, from 1944, from An Eighth AAF Fighter Station, England, it was reported: For the 22-year old Minnesotan… scored two of his squadron’s toll of eight German twin-engine fighters and damaged another Nazi plane during the recent flight near Koblenz, Germany.
Another article offered praise. America’s coveted air award, the Distinguished Flying Cross, was recently presented to First Lieutenant Boyd W. Sorenson of Pipestone, Minnesota, during an impressive ceremony held on his P-47 Thunderbolt fighter base, “Somewhere in England.” The presentation was made by Brigadier General M. C. Woodbury, Burlington, Vermont, commanding an Eighth AAF Fighter Wing. General Woodbury read the following citation, which accompanied Lt. Sorenson’s DFC. “You are awarded this Distinguished Flying Cross for extraordinary achievement in combat missions over enemy occupied Continental Europe. At the same ceremony, Lt. Sorenson received three Oak Leaf Clusters to his Air Medal. Several months previously, he earned the Air Medal. The clusters are each equivalent to one Air Medal.
Sorenson didn’t think much about the fact that his work as a combat pilot meant he was risking his life every day. He explained he was just completing his mission.
“I was never personally shot, but my plane got shot up,” he said.
When his great granddaughter proudly called him a hero, he protested. “No, I’m not a hero.”
His daughter, Linda Podvin, said her dad was nervous thinking about the Legion of Honor ceremony. He was hesitant to accept a medal because he insisted he was doing his job and he didn’t want to stand out. She said there was so much the family didn’t know about his service during the war and that they’ve learned a lot this past year. Her father graduated from Pipestone High School in 1940 and was so eager to serve, that a year later, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air force. Two years later, he transferred to the US Army Air Corps.
The Legion of Honor ceremony on July 1st was held in the community room of Willow Creek Apartments in Waite Park, where Sorenson lives. State and local leaders and member of the media mingled with family and friends. Consul General Lacroix spoke to the audience, calling Sorenson a proud son of Minnesota and member of The Greatest Generation.
“He risked everything for his country, and, in doing so, he saved my country. Because of your sacrifice, you helped restore our independence, freedom and dignity.”
He emphasized that what is so often referred to as the “invasion of Normandy” was, in fact, the liberation of Normandy—a very welcome liberation. It was France’s liberation from years of German occupation.
He was impressed with Sorenson’s humility, his selflessness, his patriotism.
“He is a true hero,” he said.
“He didn’t want to be singled out.” Lacroix found it difficult to comprehend how he was able to fly 89 missions. “It wouldn’t have been easy to fly that plane, at low altitude and with poor visibility.” He acknowledged the pain he must have suffered after losing friends and seeing so much devastation.
“We owe a debt to the Americans, to Boyd Sorenson,” Lacroix concluded. “On behalf of President Macron, and the French people, thank you. France will never forget. Merci, Monsieur.” A standing ovation followed his remarks.
The evening following the ceremony, Linda described her father as very calm and so pleased by the honor he’d received. “I was amazed by it all,” he said. “I had family and friends there. I’m just glad I didn’t have to give a speech.”
Following the war, Sorenson returned to Pipestone and to farming. He got married and he and his late wife, Phyllis, raised four children. He’s had a very full life since his days as a combat pilot. When asked if he ever spoke about his experiences during the war after returning home, Sorenson said he never minded talking about it, but that some of his friends told him they never wanted to speak of it. And so, little was said.
That’s all changed since his recognition by the French government. Much has been said about Boyd Sorenson, World War II pilot, recipient of the European African Middle Eastern Medal with Three Bronze Stars, the Air Medal with Three Oak Leaf Clusters, the Distinguished Flying Cross with Two Oak Leaf Clusters, the Canadian Operational Service Medal with Maple Leaf Cluster, and, most recently, the Legion of Honor.