March 12, 2014 - Not only is World War II veteran Richard Faulkner now the proud recipient of a Purple Heart, he's also a celebrity.
World War II veteran Richard Faulkner receives his Purple Heart from U.S. Congressman Dan Maffei (D-NY). Photo provided. (click for larger version)
Faulkner, who's a resident of Bluefield Manor, a retirement community in Auburn, New York, received his medal on Saturday, 70 years after being wounded in northern France.
The 89-year-old's amazing tale was covered in print and on television by local, national and even international media outlets.
"The press – oh, my God, we could not believe the amount of press that was there," said his daughter-in-law Mary Ellen Faulkner, of Addison Township. "We were blown away. It was just unbelievable. We never, ever expected it to hit the nightly news."
Mary Ellen spent nearly a year making phone calls and cutting through bureaucratic red tape to ensure her father-in-law received the medal he so richly deserved.
"Her relentlessness is mind-boggling to many – not to me," said Don Faulkner, her husband and Richard's son.
A former member of the U.S. Army Air Forces 100th Bomb Group 350th Bombardment Squadron, Richard is the sole survivor of a B-17 Flying Fortress destroyed on March 18, 1944 during a mission to Augsburg, Germany.
A ball turret gunner for the bomber, Richard managed to bail out of the plane, which had been sliced in half by another B-17, and parachute to safety.
Badly injured, he spent 29 days in northern France, behind enemy lines, eluding the Nazis with the help of local farmers and the French Resistance. He was finally rescued by the British Navy on April 16, 1944.
From dodging the infamous Gestapo to surviving a German E-boat attack during his rescue, Richard's story has all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster.
"I could not imagine anyone going through that (at such a young age)," Don said. "I have so much respect and admiration (for the fact) that he was able to do that and hold it all together."
As a 19-year-old man, Richard didn't want his Purple Heart back then because, according to Mary Ellen and Don, he didn't believe he deserved it since the other nine members of his crew died and he was just doing his job.
"He didn't feel that he should be honored when they all perished," Don said. "He felt they should be honored."
Over the years, Don indicated the family knew his dad had parachuted out of a plane and was aided by the French underground.
"But he never mentioned any of the stories that are now in the papers," he said. "When he turned 80, he started talking about it more and more."
Richard's decades-long silence about his war experiences is not uncommon for WWII veterans. "They were told not to say anything and just move on with life," Don said. "So, he never talked about it except for little bits and pieces . . . He's let more go since he turned 80."
A while back, Richard expressed regret over not accepting the Purple Heart. He wanted it not for himself, but to leave as a legacy for his three grandchildren and four great-grand children. Soon after, Mary Ellen went to work to make it happen.
Once news of Richard's story hit the media, quite the crowd showed up to watch him receive his Purple Heart from U.S. Congressman Dan Maffei (D-NY).
"(Richard) wanted it low-key. He didn't want anybody to know about it," Mary Ellen said. "There ended up being over 100 people at the ceremony. I was shocked at how big it got."
"(Richard) was completely surprised (by) all these people because no one invited them," Don said. "There were friends, family members, co-workers, a lot of veterans."
"I think he was really excited about it, but I think he got a little overwhelmed after the ceremony when he got bombarded by so many reporters and people taking pictures," Mary Ellen noted.
A crew from New York State Electric & Gas also attended the ceremony. Richard spent more than 30 years working as a lineman for the utility company. He retired as a chief lineman.
"They came over with a bucket truck and they put up a huge American flag outside the building," Mary Ellen said.
If hero is one word to describe Richard, then humble is another.
Upon receiving the medal, he made no grand speech or basked in the limelight.
"He just said thank you," Mary Ellen said.
Don recalled his father saying, "Everyone's making too much fuss over this."
Seeing Richard accept his Purple Heart after seven decades was a joyous occasion for Mary Ellen and Don.
"I was just ecstatic – all his kids were," said Mary Ellen, who admitted to tearing up during the ceremony. "Hearing everyone call him 'a true hero' – it makes you feel really proud."
"We're very, very pleased for him," Don said. "We're thrilled."
Don believes that by sharing his story and receiving his medal, his father will finally be able to achieve some closure with regard to that chapter of his life.
"He's kept it (to himself) all this time and now, the release is finally there," he said.
When asked if this whole thing has changed the way he views his father, Don replied, "No, because we always knew that we was special."
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.