March 05, 2014 - World War II veteran Richard Faulkner is finally going to receive his Purple Heart 70 years after being wounded in northern France thanks to the efforts of his daughter-in-law Mary Ellen Faulkner, of Addison Township.
U.S. Army Air Corps Ball Turret Gunner Richard Faulkner (standing, far left) and his crew pose in front of a B-17 bomber. (click for larger version)
"It's quite a story," Mary Ellen said. "It could almost be a movie."
A former member of the 100th Bomb Group 350th Bombardment Squadron, Richard is the sole survivor of a B-17 destroyed on March 18, 1944 during a mission to Augsburg, Germany. He spent 29 days behind enemy lines, eluding the Germans with the help of the French Resistance (or Underground) until he was finally rescued by the British Navy.
The 89-year-old resident of Auburn, New York will be presented his Purple Heart on Saturday, March 8.
"He told me, 'Now, don't make a big fuss,'" Mary Ellen said.
Richard was serving as a ball turret gunner on a B-17 bomber when his plane was literally cut in half after being hit by another B-17 that was going down. It was his first bombing mission.
He managed to bail out, but his parachute failed to deploy, so he had to reach in and pull it out by hand.
The straps hit his jaw and knocked him out. He awoke under his chute in northern France.
Richard hid from German soldiers until a local farmer found him and hid him in his hayloft. Soon, he discovered he was covered in dried blood and his knees and ankles were swollen making it difficult to walk.
Moving from house to house, Richard was in constant danger of being captured by the Germans while the French people that harbored him were in constant danger of being executed for aiding the enemy. He later learned that one of the families that helped him was shot by the Nazis.
The French Underground tried to teach Richard their native tongue so he could blend in better, but he couldn't get the accent right.
They told him to just keep his mouth shut and "act dumb."
"This was not a problem because I really could not understand (French)," he recalled in a written account of his life.
Luck must have been on Richard's side because there were many instances when he could have easily been discovered, but wasn't.
His close-calls ranged from eating in a cafe full of German soldiers on Easter Sunday to riding on a Paris subway car next to a Gestapo officer with a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist and an armed guard by his side.
At one point, the guard bumped into Richard and he gave the German a "dirty look." Fortunately, the officer diffused the situation, but it was a enough to scare the heck out of Richard. "I know I turned white with fright," he recalled.
When Richard made it to Paris, he was introduced to a captain in British intelligence, who questioned him to ensure he wasn't a German spy.
"I was then taken on a sight-seeing tour," he recalled. "I was terrified because I thought every German soldier was watching me, but they were busy sight-seeing, too."
Given his dangerous situation, his paranoia was justified. Richard recalled how two American gunners he met along the way and was traveling with were captured by the Gestapo and held as prisoners of war until freed by Allied forces.
Eventually, he made it to the French town of Morlaix, located on the Brittany Peninsula, which extends into the British Channel.
There, in the early morning hours of April 16, 1944, he boarded a British torpedo boat.
But he wasn't home free yet.
Once aboard, German E-boats began shooting at them and the British boat's gunner was killed. Because of his experience, Richard manned the machine gun with the bloody body of his predecessor still laying on the deck.
Soon, two British fighter planes chased the E-boats away and Richard's boat was able to sail for Britain.
"We still had to man battle stations because we were still in enemy waters and it was daylight," he recalled. Fortunately, the rest of the trip was uneventful.
At the time of his rescue, Richard weighed 110 pounds and his knees and ankles were still in bad shape.
Like many men of his generation, Richard never talked about his wartime experiences until much later in life.
"It's only been in the past 10 years that we've learned what he went through," Mary Ellen said.
When she found out he had earned a Purple Heart, but had never received it, Mary Ellen started making phone calls and wading through a sea of bureaucratic red tape to ensure her father-in-law received the medal he deserves.
It took almost a year, but on Jan. 14, 2014, Richard was officially awarded his Purple Heart. He will actually receive it this Saturday. "I think it's important that people really understand what the whole war was about and what (the servicemen) sacrificed for everybody," Mary Ellen said. "I give anybody credit (who's been to war). It's a tough thing."
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.