World War II veteran in CNY receives Purple Heart 70 years after turning it down
By Charley Hannagan
Auburn, NY -Dick Faulkner’s World War II survival story would make a great movie, on the level of a “Saving Private Ryan.”
Faulkner was the only person from a B-17 bomber crew to survive a crash in occupied France. Resistance fighters secreted him away to safe houses, he slipped past the Gestapo several times and, on the ship that rescued him, he was drafted as a gunner as German ships fired at the boat escaping across the English Channel.
He came back to Central New York, worked as a lineman for New York State Electric & Gas. He married, had children, and told very few his war story.
Saturday afternoon, U.S. Rep. Dan Maffei and an Army contingent will travel to Faulkner’s home in Bluefield Manor in Auburn to present him with a Purple Heart, a medal he turned down 70 years ago.
Why did he turn it down? “He didn’t think he deserved it because everybody in the plane died,” said his daughter-in-law Mary Ellen Faulkner. “He had just escaped. He wanted to come home and forget about it.”
Faulkner is 89. About nine years ago he began telling bits and pieces of his story to his family. In 2011, he spoke to a Skaneateles Middle School class, along with other vets. He declined to be interviewed by Syracuse.com prior to Saturday’s ceremony. His daughter-in-law said he’s nervous about it.
A niece finagled his whole war story out of him, producing a six-page document rich with details of his crash, his travels with the Resistance and escape to England on the eve of the Allies invasion of Normandy.
A year ago, Faulkner told his daughter-in-law that he wished he had accepted that Purple Heart. It would be a nice memento for his three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, he said. Mary Ellen Faulkner put the wheels in motion contacting a congressman’s office where she lives in Michigan, which put her in touch with Maffei’s office.
Here is Richard “Dick” Faulkner’s war story.
Faulkner graduated from Skaneateles High School in June 1942, and two days after his 18th birthday in October of that year he joined the Army Air Corps. A picture from the time shows an eager teenager with a broad grin dressed in an old fashioned flyer’s leather helmet, goggles pushed jauntily on top of his head, and a leather jacket with a white scarf bubbling up around his neck.
Richard “Dick” Faulkner as a young turret ball gunner in World War II.Courtesy Mary Ellen Faulkner
Faulkner trained for two years to be a ball turret gunner.Bomber crews considered it one of the most dangerous spots on the plane. The ball turret gunner was typically the smallest member of the aircraft crew because he had to sit in a small sphere underneath of the plane to fire guns at enemy aircraft. Faulkner told his daughter-in-law that he was lucky to be small enough to fit a parachute in the tight space with him.
In January 1944, Faulkner and his nine crew mates headed to England, after more training they joined the 100th Bomb Group 350th Squadron on March 10, 1944. Eight days later their plane nicknamed “Berlin Playboy” took off from England on its first mission to bomb Augsburg, Germany the site of a U-Boat engine and Messerschmitt aircraft factories. The town was socked in with clouds. Their target of opportunity was Lechfeld Air Field, with Munich being a secondary target, according to the bomb group’s history site.
Witnesses said the bombers encountered heavy flak over the French coast. The bombers broke formation and when they regrouped another plane collided with the Berlin Playboy slicing it in half over France. Witnesses saw one parachute exit the plane.
The wing and nose of the plane went one way and the waist and tail of the Berlin Playboy flipped over, rotating Faulkner’s turret to the top. Faulkner escaped the turret with his parachute. But the chute didn’t budge when he pulled it. He pulled the pilot chute out by hand before the main one deployed knocking Faulkner unconscious.
Faulkner woke up under his parachute on the side of a hill.
“I wadded my chute and headed for small woods where I buried my parachute, helmet, etc. Then I covered them with leaves and branches in a berry thicket. I realized I was in Northern France near the English Channel,” he told his niece.
Hearing German soldiers approaching, Faulkner buried himself in the thicket too. From his hiding place, he watched the Germans search for him as a farmer worked near a distant barn.
The farmer, who had seen Faulkner’s parachute, came looking for him that evening.
The farmer hid the American in the barn’s hayloft and in the morning brought him into his house. The farm couple cleaned up Faulkner’s bloodied face. They soaked his swollen knees and ankles in warm water to ease his pain. He stayed another night before they moved him to another house.
“I spent my third day at that house, but after dark they had me leave by the window because the Germans were looking for me. (I later heard the Germans shot the whole family for their involvement.)”
He was moved to another house spending eight days there.
“One day, a German soldier came to the house and walked in and looked around. I was trapped behind the door which he left open.”
The German left. The next day a Resistance member picked Faulkner up in a motorcycle for the next move. When they stopped to eat at a cafe it was full of German soldiers celebrating Easter weekend.
The two stayed overnight in a house and the next morning his escort bought a magazine and two train tickets. They boarded the train car at opposite ends with Faulkner pretending he could read the French magazine as the train chugged through the French countryside.
He followed the escort off the train. They stayed in two more houses before Faulkner was put with a woman and her son who had also taken in two more gunners. After a week the three were taken by truck to Paris. There, Faulkner met with a British Intelligence officer who quizzed him about his identity.
The French resistance took Faulkner on a sight-seeing tour and to a photo shop which made a false identity card that said he was a 15- year-old boy.
The woman who had taken in the three gunners wrote Faulkner a letter after the war accusing him of being a German spy for what happened next.
“Next they got us ready to move again and told us we were to follow the leader out of the apartment one at a time…We all had a ticket for the subway so I was to go next and the other two would follow in order.
The leader left and I followed him out the door. When he turned the corner I walked to that corner and he was waiting at the next corner but I threw up my hands to indicate to him the other two were not behind me. So he motioned me to follow anyway.
After the war was over in Germany, I met these two gunners in Amarillo, Texas. They told me the Gestapo picked them up as they came out of the door and they were prisoners of war until released by our troops when the war in Europe was over.”
The French woman believed Faulkner had caused the Germans to capture the other gunners.
Faulkner got on the subway with his escort on one end and him on the other.
“This day there were no seats available. So I had to stand next to a Gestapo officer who had a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist and a guard with a machine gun standing next to him. When the train started to move the guard banged into me and I gave him a dirty look. And the officer said something to him and he turned around and said ‘Merci Beaucoup’ to me, and then turned around again. But I thought he could see how scared I was because I know I turned white with fright.”
Faulkner and his escort traveled all day until they came to a town where the American was put in the back of a truck hidden among barrels and hay. They were stopped at two checkpoints by Germans checking the truck.
Finally, they arrived at a farm house on the Brittany peninsula where they met a fighter pilot, his escort, three people who had broken out of a prisoner of war camp and a British intelligence captain.
It was the night of April 15, 1944; Faulkner had spent 29 days behind enemy lines. At 2 a.m., the group followed phosphorous dots placed so they could move safely across a mine field to the beach where British boats were to pick them up.
Shortly before dawn the captain flashed a code with his flashlight. Two small rubber boats came out to get the escapees who rowed to waiting wooden torpedo boats.
Faulkner and the pilot were placed in one, and the four others in the other. Faulkner and fighter pilot Ken Williams were put in the crew quarters and the hatch closed.
“We heard the engines start and felt we were underway, slowly at first but then we picked up speed. Soon we heard guns going off and heard shells hitting the boat, which was made out of plywood.
We were going nuts because we knew the Germans were shooting at us and we were down in the hold and didn’t know what was happening.
Soon the hatch opened and the skipper of the boat asked if one of us was a gunner. I said I was…The skipper said he needed a gunner because he just had a gunner get killed.”
No one had time to move the gunner’s bloody body because of the fighting. Faulkner climbed on deck. He test fired the gun when two British fighter planes came over and chased the German boats away.
When they got to port they discovered three holes in the boat.
Richard “Dick” Faulkner told few people his World War II survival story.Courtesy Mary Ellen Faulkner
Faulkner’s family had been told he was missing in action, Mary Ellen Faulkner said. One day his mother came home to find the local telegram lady waiting in the driveway, she said.
“It’s ok, He’s fine,” the woman told Faulkner’s mother. His telegram read “Mom I’m ok. Talk to you later. Same PO Box.”
In England Faulkner was housed with other escapees, fed well to add weight to his then 110- pound frame, and sent back to the squadron.
“While I was there they asked me to give a talk to the men about evading the enemy, but I was really scared standing in front of about two hundred and fifty men and I stumbled through about a half hour of questions.”
He returned to the United States on May 4, 1944. A little over a month later the Allies would land in Normandy and begin beating back the Germans.
Faulkner was sent home to the U.S. to a rehabilitation hospital in Tennesse. The Army sent him to Texas, Colorado, Washington and finally New Mexico for B-29 training.
In February 1945, the Army asked him and eight others who also had already been in combat, to volunteer to go to the Pacific Theater to fight the Japanese. All of them declined, and they were assigned to train B-29 bomb crews until the end of the war.
On October 25, 1945, Faulkner was discharged from the Army, returned to Mottville, and put his war story behind him.