POW, rancher, Bob Hanson, receives French Legion of Honour | TSLN.com

POW, rancher, Bob Hanson, receives French Legion of Honour

Stephen Lee
for Capital Journal
Gov. Dennis Dougard (left) and Rod Woodruff (right) congratulate Bob Hanson after he was pinned with the French Legion of Honour, the county's highest military award. Photo by Phu Nguyen, Capital Journal

They brought the medal to Bob Hanson, since he couldn’t make it to France. But the former South Dakota rancher, blacksmith, boxer, breaker of horses has been there before, in spades.

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard led a ceremony Tuesday in the state Capitol giving public recognition to Hanson’s Legion of Honour (CQ) medal and ribbon which had been presented formally to Hanson a year ago in France, but using a proxy medal since his wasn’t ready yet.

“I grew up hearing about Bob and other veterans of World War II,” Daugaard said after the ceremony about the honor of recognizing Hanson’ membership in the Legion of Honour.

His medal from France came in the mail in December, said his granddaughter Tanya Arbach. Having the governor present it and recognize Hanson brought a couple hundred people or more to the Capitol. Including three of his nine grandchildren and several of his 16 great-grandchildren; he also has a great-great-grandchild.

Collin Arbach, 14, is one of Hanson’s great-grandchildren and he clearly is proud to be. “I hear parts of his story but I don’t really hear it all at once,” Collin said while taking photographs of his hero. He’s thinking about serving in the military mostly because of his great-grandfather, who is a hero to many.

Hanson has been to France, and then some. The first time he came in on a Higgins boat, a British landing craft, three days after D-Day, to Omaha Beach, fought across Normandy and Brittany for a month, where in August 1944 he was blown out of an armored vehicle by an incendiary shell, burned, his feet shattered, nearly dead, captured by the Germans who had done all that to him.

A French doctor doing first aid probably saved his life by right away caring for him in the farm field he where the German enemies found him, Hanson says. Then he was hospitalized on the Isle of Jersey in the English Channel, the distinct island occupied by Germans for most of the war, despite it being just 25 miles off the English coast. The Germans had a prisoner of war camp there, too, and Hanson was there for 10 months until the camp was liberated as the Allies declared victory in the spring of 1945.

The Legion of Honour is France’s highest decoration and dates to Napoleon. Hanson has a Purple Heart and other decorations from his own Army but the French one is something else, he says. It more than makes up for the little Golden Gloves pin he lost to the Germans somewhere between being blasted out of his armored vehicle and being liberated by his Allies, victorious. He weighed only 87 pounds, about half of what he weighed when he was shot, Hanson said. But even that starved, he couldn’t keep down the “soup made out of octopus suction cups,” his captors gave him. He grimaced at the memory. Better to trap the giant rats that left clear trails across his prison isle. “We used cardboard boxes, set them up on sticks,” he said. They caught a few but the rats chewed their way out quickly.

He spent a lot of time in hospitals back in the United States, too. He came home to the ranch near Bison in northwest South Dakota, to the house where he was born in October 1918, just before the Great War in France against the Germans ended.

He married Donna, they had three sons, he worked and excelled at several trades, including ranching. His wife and sons all are gone now but he has a wealth of family and friends.

“Bob taught me how to a lot, blacksmithing,” said a young neighbor, Dusty Jager, there to see his friend and mentor honored. “He’s a teacher. He taught me everything about horse-shoeing. He’s extremely handy.”

It takes Hanson a while to list all the trades and occupations he mastered before and after the war.

“I was a gunsmith,” he said about his soldiering in Europe with the Army’s 15th Cavalry. “I fired all the guns, I fired everything, profusely.”

But his favorite was the legendary, wood-stocked Thompson submachine gun, it’s fat .45 caliber slugs just right for going house to house in French cities hunting Germans, Hanson said. “I’m a Thompson man.”

He also was a horse man, “imprinting” himself on a newborn colt to make it his lifelong friend, he said.

“I quit breaking colts when I was 90,” he said, with a grin.

Hanson lives now in Gillette, Wyoming, with his granddaughter Tanya and her family. A nephew is farming and running the ranch near Bison.

Did he have anger over what the Germans had done to him, against the enemies guarding him the prison camp?

“No,” he said. “Because of Adolph Hitler. They were in a prison more severe than us because the Nazis would kill their families.” Hanson got to know one his guards, a victim himself of the Nazi war machine that kept his family hostage to force him to fight.

“He told me if the U.S. would take over the Island of Jersey, he would give me the keys to the camp,” Hanson said. “And he did.”

He’s had to wear specially made shoes and boots ever since because his foot bones were so mangled. It never stopped him much. But when he looks back, Hanson only talks about all the people, French, German, Polish, British and American, who helped him.

Before he returned home from the war, he was able to stop and thank the French doctor who saved his life in the first days after he was wounded. “He shook his head, said he never thought I would live,” Hanson said.

Years after the war, an injury from a horse nearly cost him his legs but a doctor saved them, he said.

His granddaughter Tanya has gone with him back to France twice, in 2009 and 2014, and she and her family brought him to Pierre on Tuesday and brought him back home again.

“I had a lot of great help all my life,” he said.

–Reprinted with permission from the Capital Journal

Go here for a TSLN story about Bob’s life as a rancher and soldier.

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