Posted 12/29/15 (Tue)
By Cecile Krimm
Notification of Leonard Larson’s death, late in November 1944, wasn’t like in the movies.
The stereotypical march to the door of a family home by uniformed soldiers delivering news of a casualty never occurred at the home of Erick and Ella Larson, who lived in a little hamlet halfway between Ambrose and Fortuna.
Mabel Hysjulien, Leonard’s little sister, was just 16 years old at the time.
“I got the telephone call,” she remembers. It doesn’t surprise her today that the army could not send someone to personally deliver the news.
“Colgan is a very small town and out in the middle of nowhere,” she said.
Leonard, 19, had been killed in combat in France. Confirmation came a few weeks later in a telegram the family has kept for 71 years.
In a single sentence, all of the hope and nurturing poured into a son and brother came to naught, albeit with deep regrets from the war department.
Mabel’s son, Gene, remembers when, as a little boy, each time he and his grandmother walked past the war monument on the lawn of the Divide County Courthouse, Ella would stop to look at Leonard’s name engraved in the stone.
“I think it was grandma’s way of keeping his memory alive,” said Gene, who lately has assumed the mantle as preserver of Leonard’s history.
Last week, Mabel, Gene and Gene’s wife, Dianna, saw the culmination of two years of work to have a purple heart medal restored to Leonard’s family.
The medal was presented to the Hysjuliens in Bismarck by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who worked with the family and Chris Berglund, Deputy Veterans Service Officer, to obtain the award that previously had been given to his family, but was never included on Leonard’s official record.
When Gene’s aunt, Marlys, was being moved a few years ago from Williston to Arizona, her children came across a purple heart given to the family after Leonard’s death.
“It was really, really torn up, just crushed,” said Gene. “So we were all just heartbroken because we knew this was Leonard’s purple heart.”
But when the family set out to see if there was some way to have the medal replaced there were some surprises.
“When we got the list of medals back from the Army, the medals we got back did not include the purple heart,” said Gene, but they did include a bronze star. Record of the specific actions resulting in that award are believed to have been lost in a 1973 fire that destroyed many WWII service records, said Mabel.
Gene said learning about the bronze star was the “exciting part” of the quest, but the family could not let go of the desire to see the purple heart restored.
“It’s really about honoring Leonard and for mom and her sister,” said Gene.
Along the way, said Gene, Crosby native Megan (Melby) Carranza who works in Sen. Heitkamp’s office, got involved, along with Berglund.
“They were able to verify he was killed in action and should be awarded the purple heart,” said Gene.
Mabel last saw her brother when he came home after basic training, in August 1944.
“When he left he said he’d be back again but instead they shipped him out,” she said.
Mabel is left with memories of a “funny” older brother with “carrot top” red hair who, along with her other siblings, liked to tease her.
“I’m the baby and they never let me forget it,” Mabel said.
Another brother, Donald, is also gone now. Marlys remains in Arizona, and Mabel lives today in Bismarck, near Gene.
To this day, little is known about the circumstances surrounding Leonard’s death.
According to a write up provided by Gene, Leonard was born July 2, 1925 and entered the service on March 29, 1944. After completing basic training at Fort Snelling, in Minnesota, he went to Fort Walters in Texas.
On Sept. 1, he arrived at Fort Meade, Md., preparation for deployment to Europe. He boarded a ship in New York on Sept. 20, later landing at Omaha Beach, Normandy, with Patton’s 3rd Army, XII Corp, 26th “Yankee Doodle Dandy” Division. They were assigned to take the towns of Dieuze and Torcheville, where Leonard was killed in action.
According to histories recorded on the Internet, Leonard’s outfit was part of what is known as the “Lorraine Campaign,” which had as it’s ultimate goal the liberation of Metz, France. U.S. forces gained control of Metz the day after Leonard’s death.
Leonard was first buried in the U.S. Military Cemetery at Limy, northwest of Nancy, France. Following the war, his family; chose to have him buried at the Lorraine American Cemetery located in St. Avold (Moselle) France.
News of Leonard’s death came to neighbors through a story in the Divide County Journal. The Dec. 8, 1944 edition reported “Two Colgan Youths Listed as Casualties” with one soldier, Gordon D. Hollister reported missing and Leonard reported killed.
“He was a fine young man and the news of his death will be regretted by all who knew him,” the article stated.
Though Gene grew up very aware of his grandmother’s pain in having lost her son, “I think the younger generation in our family needs to know he wasn’t just a name.”
As well, Gene wanted to answer as many details for his mother and aunt as possible, given the fact so few details were available to the family at the time of Leonard’s death.
At a recent family reunion in Arizona, all of the medals save the just-awarded purple heart, along with a history of Leonard’s whole life was on display.
“People shared stories back and forth,” said Gene. “It was just a really wonderful time.”
The record isn’t just about Leonard’s army life, but covers his life from baptism, through his graduation from high school.
“It was really just to celebrate him as a person,” said Gene, so younger family members can have a sense of who their Uncle Leonard was in life, not just how he died.
The record also helps to preserve the family’s pride in Leonard’s sacrifice.
“He stood strong for our country and he’s a part of that generation that was the greatest generation,” said Gene. ‘They’re the reason we have what we have today.”