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Former UA ROTC commander receives France’s highest medal of honor

Col.+Robert+D.+Dwan%2C+left%2C+Gerrit+Steenblik%2C+center%2C+and+Cpl.+Lawrence+W.+Strahler%2C+right%2C+pose+for+a+photo+at+the+American+Legion+Post+109+Sunday%2C+April+23.+Both+WWII+Veterans+earned+the+Ordre+national+de+la+Legion+dhonneur%2C+Frances+highest+honor.
Selena Quintanilla

Col. Robert D. Dwan, left, Gerrit Steenblik, center, and Cpl. Lawrence W. Strahler, right, pose for a photo at the American Legion Post 109 Sunday, April 23. Both WWII Veterans earned the Ordre national de la Legion d’honneur, France’s highest honor.

Col. Robert D. Dwan was one of two U.S. World War II veterans awarded the Ordre National de la Légion d’honneur for military heroism on Sunday, April 23, at the American Legion Post 109.

The stoic 97-year-old army retiree labored out of his wheelchair at the start of the ceremony and stood for five long minutes throughout the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem, French national anthem and Cienega High School’s JROTC presentation of the colors.

Dwan is a former commander of UA’s ROTC program from 1966 to 1971. He said his job on campus was to equip student cadets with basic military principals and regulations.

Dwan graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, similar to his father, after briefly attending Harvard University. Although he was in the class of 1944, Dwan was commissioned a year early because of the war.

Following tactical warfare training in the California desert at Camp Coxcomb, Dwan, leader of the 15th Calvary Regiment, fought on Utah Beach in the Allied invasion of Normandy.

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“The assault troops had been briefed as to their exact destination, and if the Germans found out, the results would have been disastrous,” Dwan wrote in a letter after the war to the sisters of a fellow soldier, Ted Dobosz. “There were many rehearsals since the exact D-Day was unknown. Then, during one rehearsal, it happened and it was for real.”

His platoon had arrived in England aboard the Queen Mary vessel, which was formerly a luxury liner, in June 1944. Thomas Dwan, Dwan’s second son, fondly recalled some of his father’s stories surrounding the voyage.

“Guys were stacked in there with six-[unit]-high bunks,” Thomas said. “Guys who had never been on a ship before were just puking all over the place. He was saying they didn’t have any escorts and if they sank, they would have lost about 15,000 men.”

In a diary entry, Dwan remembered a close call that left him wounded from German artillery fire. A half-inch shell fragment struck his lower leg as he checked on an injured soldier in an adjacent St. Claude trench, near Brest, France.

“I … raised up and saw that his foot was nearly severed,” he wrote. “Hearing another incoming shell, I dropped back in the slit trench … I felt a thud in my right calf, looked down and saw blood at the top of my legging.”

Despite the grit he encountered on the battle field, Dwan remained a dedicated soldier, husband and father. His No. 1 goal in life was to raise his four children with upstanding morals.

Thomas, 57, described his father as “an honorable, honest guy” who bears a heart of gold.

When the army veteran and his family were stationed in Germany, Thomas shoplifted a packet of fruit-flavored candy tablets called Fizzies from a local grocery store. Staying true to his candid nature, Dwan forced Thomas to rectify his dishonesty by returning to the shop and paying for the stolen item.

Everything Dwan did within the army and apart from it was motivated by truthfulness. He believes that a person’s worth is based on their integrity.

“If he was off by 25 cents on his taxes,” Thomas said, “he would refile his taxes and do it correctly. If someone ‘under-rang’ him at a store, he would pay the right amount.”

Both he and Cpl. Lawrence Strahler were given the Knight’s Medal in Corona De Tucson by Gerrit M. Steenblik, Honorary Consul of France in Arizona, commemorating their military merit for rescuing France from German occupation.

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Their names will be displayed on a plaque alongside their fellow recipient comrades within Paris’ Musée de la Légion d’honneur—the Museum of the Legion of Honor. The Legion of Honor, which is the highest French award, was established by First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte during 1802.

“We will not forget, as France has not forgotten the things that tie us together,” Steenblik said. “It is because of this that France wants to honor these veterans. No sacrifice made in that war was too small, and we are grateful for the opportunity to honor everyone who has served and helped to liberate France.”

Dwan’s other significant decorations include The Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart Medal and the French Croix de Guerre.

“We are proud of … what our dad has done,” Thomas Dwan said on behalf of his siblings. “The fact that he was recognized for something he did … was pretty darn impressive.”

Like many other World War II servicemen, Dwan operated his military career with the utmost sincerity. Thomas Dwan said his father expressed gratification in receiving the French Legion of Honor metal, especially since it was unexpected.

After the ceremony, Dawn said, “I highly appreciate the honor.”


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