Like all true heroes, Boyd Sorenson insists he’s not a hero and brushes off extravagant praises. His attitude is that he just happened to be there in a war zone and did the best he could do, along with many others.
But that’s not the attitude of others. They consider Sorenson to be an extraordinary, courageous man who gave his all (yes, as a hero) not just in one but in two wars.
Raised as a farm boy in Pipestone, he enlisted to become a fighter pilot in World War II and in the Korean War, and on July 1 at the age of 96 – soon to be 97 – he was awarded the internationally prestigious Legion of Honor medal in Waite Park.
The highest honor France can bestow, the medal was pinned to Sorenson’s lapel by Guillaume LaCroix, the Chicago-based Consul General of France for the Midwest Region. The ceremony took place in the community room of Sorenson’s assisted-living complex in Waite Park. A Stearns County Veterans Service officer, Cory Vaske, emceed the gathering.
Nearly 200 people, including many descendants of Sorenson, gave him a loud, sustained standing ovation. Reporters and videographers, including some from the Twin Cities and from Fox News, dashed and scrambled among people in the packed room to get their stories. Also attending were local dignitaries, including St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis; former Sartell Mayor Joe Perske; and representatives of U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who sent a letter of congratulations and thanks to Sorenson that was read aloud at the ceremony.
Another special guest, who sat next to Sorenson, was Ozzie Grothe of Alexandria, now 92, who enlisted when she was 17 in order to learn how to become a pilot, but the war ended before she could get her wings.
At the start of the ceremony, there was the Posting of the Colors and the playing of “La Marseillaise” (French National Anthem) and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
After LaCroix’s speech honoring Sorenson and his tribute to the long-time historical-cultural bonds between France and America, the medal was presented. After the applause and commotion subsided, Sorenson – humble to a fault – paused a long time, then said simply “Thank you,” paused again and said, “And now I hope you all enjoy your lunch.”
Born in Flandreau, South Dakota, Sorenson’s parents moved to a farm near Pipestone in southwest Minnesota when he was a young boy. He graduated from Pipestone High School in 1940, studied for a time at Mankato State Teachers College, then moved to Los Angeles where his brother lived and where he went to work in a factory. Once America joined the war, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Sorenson was eager to become a pilot. A co-worker suggested he join the Canadian Royal Air Force, and that is just what he did in 1941. He later transferred to the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1943 as a fighter pilot and flew 89 missions over Europe, including during the all-important D-Day invasion of northern France in 1944. After the war, in the early 1950s, Sorenson again began to fly missions – 72 of them – after the start of the Korean War.
After the wars, Sorenson returned to the job he loved most – farming on the Pipestone farm. He and his wife, Phyllis, who died in 1999, have four children.
Before presenting the Legion of Honor, LaCroix noted that 89 missions over Europe, not to mention 72 over Korea, is a phenomenal number. Most Legion of Honor recipients flew less than 20 missions, he said.
LaCroix thanked Sorenson for “saving my country,” and he also thanked him on behalf of French President Emmanuel Macron, who personally approved Sorenson’s high honor.
Founded by French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the Legion of Honor has been given to war heroes worldwide who have helped France and Europe, and it is also given for cultural, academic and intellectual achievements. It was bestowed, for example, on telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell; to movie-maker Walt Disney; and to Minnesota natives aviator Charles Lindbergh and singer-songwriter Bob Dylan.
Several other Minnesota veterans also received the Legion of Honor in past years, two of them in 1970.
LaCroix said he was honored to be in the St. Cloud area because he had become aware that St. Cloud, Minnesota and St. Cloud, France are sister cities. A suburb of Paris, St. Cloud (in French pronounced “Cloo”) was the location of Napoleon’s favorite palatial residence. John Wilson, the man who founded St. Cloud in the mid-1800s, was a Napoleon enthusiast and thus named the city on the Mississippi River St. Cloud. Throughout the years, mayors and delegations from both cities visited one another from time to time. An interesting fact is both cities are more or less located on the same geographical latitude line.
The day after the ceremony, Sorenson said it was one of the nicest days he’s ever known.
“It was a very good time,” he said, “and I don’t know how to thank enough everyone who worked so hard to make that day happen.”