Central Illinois veteran receives France's highest honor
A Central Illinois World War II veteran received the highest honor the French government can bestow on Tuesday.
Corporal Dean A. Preston volunteered for service and was inducted on March 20, 1943. He was honorably discharged, after 18 months in Europe during World War II, on Dec. 11, 1945.
According to a biography written by Eric Montgomery, Preston was a part of the 927th Signal Battalion, Separate, Tactical Air Command. He originally enlisted to be part of an air crew, specifically a gunner, but a need for radio repairmen meant a trip to Camp Patrick Henry in Virginia for radio repair school.
Preston shipped out to Algeria in April 1944 for additional training. During the next year and a half on the European continent, Preston earned five Campaign Stars: Rome-Arno, Southern France, Northern France, Rhineland and Central Europe.
In August 1944, Preston was part of Operation Dragoon, supporting an invading force landing in Southern France with a solid and timely communication network.
Preston is 98 years old, and he still remembers and recounts his time in the military vividly.
“The guy standing on the thing, telling me where to go, said ‘if you get stuck, a bulldozer’s coming off and it’s going to throw you off to the side,’” said Preston, recalling driving a truck during a chaotic beach landing in Southern France. “So he says: ‘Don’t mess around. Just look and don’t do anything. Just sit there and steer and you’ll be alright, but don’t try to do anything fancy.’”
While in France, Preston found himself caught between two major military events: the German Ardennes Offensive and Battle of the Bulge on one side and the edge of Germany’s Operation Nordwind on the other. His unit moved quickly to avoid the advancing enemy, constantly tearing down and reestablishing radio communications.
Now, eight decades later, the French government recognizes Preston’s contributions to French liberation with the French Legion of Honor, or the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur. The medal is the highest honor that can be bestowed on a person who “accomplishes great deeds for France.”
“I didn't ever expect anything like it, of course,” Preston said. “I made a couple other medals, I guess. But I didn't really know whether I wanted them or not. And this one's a different story.”
Preston received the honor at a pinning ceremony Tuesday at Preston-Hanley Funeral Home in Pekin. Yannick Tagand, Consul General of France to the Midwest, traveled across the Atlantic to present the award.
“Mr. Preston, you're a true hero, a real hero, maybe a silent hero. But you're a hero,” said Tagand during the ceremony. “Because thanks to you, I grew up in a free country. In a country that has been living in peace for almost eight decades, which is the longest period of continuous peace in modern French history.”
The award bestows the title of “chevalier,” or knight, on Preston.
Preston keeps himself active, he still works part-time at the funeral home as a greeter and assisting with daytime events.
“When I think of Dean, I think of a person with a high sense of honor, and a deep sense of personal responsibility. His character, his integrity, are remarkable, unquestioned,” said Buster Hanley, general manager of the funeral home. “And definitely, we're celebrating this today.”
Preston says, even as a chevalier, he plans to continue working at the funeral home for as long as he can.
“Why they're keeping me I don't know,” he laughs. “But I liked it here for 35 years. Never any problems.”