A childhood fascination with airplanes and trains led Richard Denison to join the U.S. Army Air Forces as a navigator during World War II and later to a civilian career devoted to preserving railroad history.
Denison was aboard a “Gooney Bird” C-47 aircraft on D-Day in June 1944, swooping behind German lines and launching a glider plane carrying artillery gunners for the 82nd Airborne. In recognition of his 42 combat missions as a U.S. Army Air Forces bombardier and navigator helping liberate France from German occupation, Denison was awarded France’s highest military honor, the Chevalier medal of the French Legion of Honor. The medal was presented by the French consul general in 2011 in a ceremony at the California State Railroad Museum, where Denison was employed as a researcher and served 13,000 hours as a volunteer after retiring from the military.
Denison died in Sacramento on April 1 of congestive heart failure after suffering from pneumonia, said his daughter Carol Denison. He was four weeks shy of his 95th birthday.
Despite three strokes and two bouts of cancer, her father remained active until recently, Carol Denison said.
“He always said, ‘When the elephant lies down, the jackal will get him,’ ” she recalled.
Richard H. Denison was born April 30, 1921, in New Albany, Ind., to Charles and Maude Denison. He was the eldest of six boys. Five saw military service, while a sixth became a Methodist minister to “look out for the rest of us,” Richard Denison wrote in a brief summary of his life.
As a youth, he became interested in building model airplanes. He attended several flying meets, winning third place in an Indianapolis American Legion contest.
Denison worked 40 hours a week at a grocery store to earn money to come to California, where he could earn a degree in aeronautical engineering in two years. But after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he left college and went to work for the Douglas Aircraft Co. before he was drafted. He entered the U.S. Army Air Forces and graduated as an aerial navigator.
He married Betty Jane Schmidt in December 1943, a month before he departed for England. The couple were married 73 years.
Denison earned honors including the Distinguished Flying Cross and five battle stars in World War II. In 2011, when he received the Chevalier medal, he told a Sacramento Bee reporter, “I was just an average guy who was drafted and had to do things that I could not conceive that I would have ever been able to do.”
He was discharged from the Army Air Forces in December 1946 and entered the Air National Guard in January 1947 as a full-time administrative officer. He was recalled to active duty for the Korean War.
Denison became the base commander at the Air National Guard base in Van Nuys in 1961, and later became the project officer for converting five groups of F-86 fighters to C-97 transports at Travis Air Force Base. He then was transferred to Sacramento and became the project officer for converting the C-130 for “water bombing” in fighting forest fires.
Denison was promoted to brigadier general upon retirement from the Air National Guard in 1976 and turned his attention to trains.
“He never worked for the railroad, but he could tell you everything about the history of the railroad,” said Carol Denison.
A model railroad enthusiast, Denison went to work for the California State Parks system, heading a team of nine researchers charged with ensuring the historic accuracy of railroad equipment being restored in advance of the opening of the California State Railroad Museum in 1981. He later worked in the museum’s exhibit section. Upon retiring from state employment in 1990, he became a docent at the museum.
Marilyn Sommerdorf worked with Denison for more than 30 years as an employee and volunteer at the railroad museum. She and Denison, both avid photographers, spent three days at Stanford University photographing hand-painted illustrations of Baldwin locomotives. Philadelphia-based Baldwin Locomotive Works was one of the world’s largest and most influential builders of steam locomotives, and the materials in the Stanford archives are important to those doing restoration work. Summerdorf said she and Denison provided copies of their photographs to Stanford and the Smithsonian Institution, as well as the California State Railroad Museum.
Denison often said of the locomotive restoration, “We’re doing 19th-century work in the 20th century,” Sommerdorf recalled.
Carol Denison said part of what kept her father young in spirit was cultivating friendships with people who were younger than he was.
Bruce Kleinshmidt met Richard Denison when he began working as a docent at the railroad museum in 1981. Although 30 years younger than Denison, Kleinshmidt said the men shared many conservative views. They met regularly for lunch over the years, talking about history and about Denison’s war experiences.
“He would get choked up over some of the stories, and especially friends he had lost,” Kleinshmidt said.
Richard Denison is survived by his wife, Betty, of Sacramento; daughters Carol Denison of Sacramento and Christine Nekl of Colorado Springs, Colo.; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by a granddaughter.
A celebration of his life will be held at noon Thursday in the California State Railroad Museum Theater, at Second and I streets in Old Sacramento. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be sent to the California State Railroad Museum Foundation.