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After 70 years, WWII gunner finally accepts Purple Heart

Downed World War II gunner evaded the Nazis for 29 days. Seventy years later, he finally accepted his medal.

Mar. 23, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Rep. Dan Maffei, D-N.Y., pins the Purple Heart on Richard Faulkner on March 8 at his retirement community.
Rep. Dan Maffei, D-N.Y., pins the Purple Heart on Richard Faulkner on March 8 at his retirement community. ()
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Staff Sgt. Richard Faulkner was the only surviving crew member when his bomber was shot down on a mission to Augsburg, Germany, on March 18, 1944. He spent a month eluding the Germans in occupied France and later declined a Purple Heart. He did not feel it was right to accept the decoration after all his crew members perished. This month, at the age of 89, he finally received it, because he wants to pass it down to his grandchildren. (Courtesy Faulkner family)
Staff Sgt. Richard Faulkner, standing far left, was the only surviving crew member when his B-17 bomber was shot down over Nazi-occupied France on March 18, 1944. (Photos courtesy Faulkner family)

Richard Faulkner volunteered for the Army Air Forces on October 10, 1942, two days after he turned 18. Less than a year had passed since the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, and signing up, he believed, was his duty.

That December, he said goodbye to his family outside the Finger Lakes town of Skaneateles, N.Y., and headed for Syracuse, where he swore his oath of enlistment. He trained for nearly a year: First basic, then airplane and engine and gunnery school. One month before his 19th birthday, Faulkner — Dick to those who knew him — began ball turret gunner training on the B-17 in Texas. The job would change his life.

Faulkner arrived in England in January 1944 and was later assigned to the 350th Squadron, 100th Bomb Group at Thorpe Abbotts. The group had already sustained such catastrophic losses it was nicknamed “The Bloody Hundredth.”

Staff Sgt. Faulkner and the nine other crew members on the bomber called the Berlin Playboy completed five training flights in the run-up to their first bombing mission over Augsburg, Germany, on the foggy morning of March 18. The flight would be their last. Somewhere over Northern France, the B-17s came under heavy antiaircraft fire and fell out of formation. As the planes came back together, the BerlinPlayboy was struck by another bomber and split in half.

Few turret gunners, squeezed into a sphere below the belly of the B-17, had room for parachutes. But Faulkner had half-fastened one to himself for the mission. As the broken plane sank toward Earth, he forced open the door, fastened the other side of the chute and fell face-first into the sky.

As the landscape came into focus, he tried to deploy his parachute. Nothing. Faulkner, still in a free fall, unsnapped the cover and yanked on the pilot chute. The canopy opened, its harness striking him so hard in the jaw he passed out.

Faulkner came to beneath the tangled silken canopy on a hill somewhere near the Nazi-occupied town of Dieppe, France. He alone had survived the crash.

Saved by the French Resistance

He heard the Germans coming.

Faulkner scrambled into a thicket, buried himself with underbrush and waited silently for hours. After dark, the staff sergeant decided, when he was sure the Germans were gone, he’d make his way to a nearby farm.

The farmer had already spotted the American, though. They met as dusk fell, the Frenchman stopping short when he noticed the pistol under Faulkner’s arm.

“I’m an American,” he told the farmer, who refused to come closer until Faulkner had relinquished the gun.

The Frenchman buried the gun in a hole in the ground and led the airman to a barn, where Faulkner would spend his first cold night hiding from the enemy. The farmer roused him before daylight and brought him into the house.

Inside a bedroom, the farmer pointed at him and began speaking in French. Faulkner understood only after a woman in the home brought him a mirror. He was covered in dried blood, his knees and ankles swollen painfully.

The man and woman helped him clean up, gave him hot water in which to soak his knees. On the third day, his rescuers secreted him to another home where he stayed only until nightfall.

The Germans were looking for the missing American. Faulkner left after dark through a window and spent much of the night walking slowly on his swollen legs.

He’d avoided the Germans but the family did not. They were executed for their role in the American’s disappearance into the French underground, Faulkner was later told.

Faulkner’s next stop — at the home of a couple and their middle-aged daughter early the next morning — would be his longest. Here he stayed for eight days, keeping to a bedroom when the family was home and venturing into the rest of the house only after they left for the day. They brought him meals and a chamber pot and water to bathe with.

On the seventh day, a German soldier showed up at the door and demanded to search the house. Faulkner hid behind a door as the soldier went room to room.

A man on a motorcycle whisked Faulkner away early the next morning.

Wearing a beret and scarf, the baby-faced Faulkner would now hide in plain sight, presumably passing as a young French boy. The riders came harrowingly close to German troops when they stopped to change a flat tire and again when they stopped at a cafe for lunch.

So many people were out, the man on the motorcycle explained, because it was Easter Sunday.

At a train station the next day in Amiens, Faulkner’s escort bought him a ticket and a French magazine. They kept their distance on the train car, the staff sergeant with the magazine to his face, too terrified to move much.

They traveled to Neufchâteau, according to the sign at the station where they disembarked, some 300 miles east of where his plane had gone down. The family that took Faulkner in tried to teach him French over the few days that followed, finally giving up because, they told him, he had the wrong accent.

“Keep your mouth shut,” they told him in broken English, and pretend like you don’t understand if someone speaks to you.

That was easy enough, Faulkner thought, since he couldn’t.

Soon, he was on his way to Paris, this time in a truck with two other American gunners taken in by the French Resistance after their planes had been shot down.

Only Faulkner would make it successfully out of the city.

A final escape

The three Americans were to follow the resistance fighter one by one from an apartment in Paris: left out of the building, to the end of the block. From there, train tickets in hand, they would head to the subway, jumping on just as it pulled away and scattering inconspicuously across the train car.

Faulkner went first. When the two other gunners never showed up, their escort motioned for him to follow anyway.

Faulkner had just missed the Gestapo, who arrested the two other Americans as they left the apartment. They would spend the rest of war in a German-controlled prison camp.

The Germans, it seemed, were everywhere. On the crowded subway, he found himself next to a German officer and a guard with a machine gun. As the train pulled out with a lurch, the guard bumped into Faulkner, who in turn shot the soldier a dirty look.

He was sure the journey would end then, sure they would see the terror in his face and know his true identity. But the Germans only exchanged a few words, said “merci beaucoup” to the boy in the beret and turned their attention elsewhere.

The train carried them westward, toward the town of Morlaix on the Brittany Peninsula, at the mouth of the English Channel.

Faulkner rode to an empty farmhouse in the back of a truck, hidden between barrels and hay bales. Here he joined up with an American fighter pilot, a British intelligence officer and a trio who’d broken out of a prisoner-of-war camp. French resistance workers came with guns and food.

At midnight, four Frenchmen went out to watch a nearby German machine gun post with orders to kill if the soldiers spotted them. If they weren’t spotted, they were to do nothing, so they could use the route again.

Two hours later, the group made their way single-file across a mine field, guided by dots of phosphorus placed by French resistance fighters.

The Frenchmen stopped at the top of an embankment near the machine gun post. The rest continued on, sliding one by one down a muddy gully to the beach. Hours passed. The British officer flashed a signal out over the water, and just before dawn, two rubber rafts rowed to shore.

The rafts carried them to a pair of torpedo boats, where they split into two groups, Faulkner and the fighter pilot in one, the rest in the other.

The two Americans were ushered down into the crew quarters, the hatch closed over them, leaving them in darkness. The boat had just begun to move when they came under German fire, shells smashing into the plywood vessel.

The hatch opened. Was either man a gunner, the skipper called down. His had just been killed.

Faulkner rushed on deck, where the dead gunner’s bloody body still lay. Just as he fired a test shot, two British fighter planes came to their rescue. The German U-boats scattered.

But it was daylight now, and they were in enemy waters. Faulkner maintained his post at the machine gun until they safely reached harbor, just in case.

In an English port, Faulkner changed into a British uniform. He left behind his beret and scarf and the French magazine he’d clung to like a lifeline.

It was April 16, 1944, 29 days since the crash.

Journey's end

By the time he made it back to the 100th Bomb Group, he knew hardly any of the men. Most had arrived after he went missing. Faulkner packed up some of his personal possessions — his wallet and photos and letters — and sent them home to his mother.

He shyly answered questions for half an hour before a crowd of some 250 on how to evade the enemy. A couple of days later, he and two officers who had also recently escaped the Germans met with then-Col. Curtis LeMay, who would become chief of the Air Force nearly two decades later. They spoke for an hour about their experiences and how the military might better prepare men who fall behind enemy lines.

Faulkner would not see combat again.

He returned to New York on May 4, 1944, and spent the rest of the war stateside training B-29 crews.

When the Army Air Forces offered the staff sergeant a Purple Heart, he declined. He did not feel right accepting a decoration when his nine crew mates were not alive to do the same.

Trying to forget

Faulkner was discharged Oct. 25, 1945, three years after he’d volunteered. He went home, got a job as a lineman for the New York State Electric and Gas Corp., married and had two sons and a daughter.

He tried to forget the war.

Faukner never said much about his time in Europe, his daughter-in-law, Mary Ellen Faulkner said in an interview this month with Air Force Times. He had done his duty, he told his family, and that was all.

Three grandchildren came along and four great-grandchildren. He quietly settled into a retirement community in Auburn, N.Y.

A few years ago, as Faulkner neared the end of his eighth decade, he told his family about the Purple Heart, how he’d turned it down. Maybe he should have accepted it after all, for his grandchildren who were having children of their own.

A relative, aware of the significance of his service, sat down with Faulkner, “picked his brain and wrote it all down,” Mary Ellen said. “That’s how we got it all out of him.”

The six-page story provided a startlingly detailed account through the French countryside, through Nazi-occupied Paris and across the English Channel. Faulkner even agreed to share his story with a few school groups.

Maybe, Mary Ellen thought, it wasn’t too late for that Purple Heart. When she mentioned the idea to Faulkner, now 89, he told her he was sure it was.

A letter, she responded, wouldn’t hurt anything.

Mary Ellen contacted Faulkner’s Congressman, Rep. Dan Maffei, D-N.Y., whose office sent paperwork allowing the lawmaker’s staff to look into Faulkner’s military record.

He’d earned it all right, Maffei’s office told the Faulkners, and he was still eligible to receive it. When Mary Ellen told her father-in-law the news, she recalled, “He said, ‘OK, they can just send it to me in the mail.’ ”

Mary Ellen insisted on a presentation. “How many adult children get to watch that honor?” she said. “So we thought we’d arranged just a little ceremony.”

Maffei pinned the Purple Heart onto the veteran’s striped dress shirt at a March 8 ceremony at Faulkner’s retirement home. He accepted it quietly, Mary Ellen said, declining to speak afterward.

Some 150 people were there for the ceremony: Family and friends and reporters and even folks from the New York State Electric and Gas Corp. who hung a giant American flag for the occasion.

In the days that followed, the story of the man who never wanted any fanfare went around the world, appearing on the nightly news, in newspapers and online as far away as England, where 70 years ago it all began.

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