Seventy years ago, John Sullivan was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps (the predecessor of the U.S. Air Force) and months later was on his way to Europe where he would serve as a bombardier aboard a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber.
On July 6, 1944, Sullivan's crew flew their first bombing mission in the hostile skies over northern France, the first of 35 missions riddled with peril and risk.
"There were missions when we would fly into a black cloud made up of 88mm shellfire from the Germans," said Sullivan, 90, Jefferson City.
Now, more than seven decades after his enlistment in the U.S. Army Air Corps's Aviation Cadet Training Program, Sullivan will be recognized by the French government with the award of the Knight of the Legion of Honor medal.
In a letter from the French Consulate in Chicago notifying Sullivan of the award, Consul General Graham Paul writes, "Thanks to your courage, and to our American friends and allies, France has been living in peace for the past six decades. ... For us, the French people, you are heroes."
Although not exclusively awarded for military service, the Legion of Honor is France's highest award and was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.
Previously the medal was issued only to American veterans of World War I; however, in 2004 the French government extended eligibility to veterans of the Second World War. Applications for the honor are reviewed by France and veterans must meet strict criteria.
To be considered, veterans must have fought in one of the three main campaigns in the liberation of French and submit an application through their nearest consulate with copies of all citations already received from France or the U.S. for meritorious actions during wartime.
The medal is not awarded posthumously.
In a private ceremony at the state Capitol later this week, Sullivan - in the presence of family, friends and local dignitaries - will be presented the medal by Governor Jay Nixon.
"As the son of a veteran myself, I am proud to have personally presented this medal to several Missourians," Nixon said. "It is a vivid reminder of the bravery so commonly shown by this generation that fought for our freedom, and we should thank our World War II veterans while they are still with us."
As Sullivan explains, though he was only on the ground once in France during the war, he and his comrades spent many hours in the air above bombing enemy targets, forever impacting the lives of the French people and never seeking any recognition for their actions.
"I was fortunate to have survived the war without any of my crewmembers being seriously injured or killed ... because there were many who didn't make it home," Sullivan said.
"And to receive this medal," he added, "well, it's a great honor-one that I didn't ever expect, but something that I'm truly proud of."
Jeremy P. Ã„mick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.