France honors WWII B-17 crewman
France | James Facos named a chevalier for missions flown in advance of D-Day
by Michael Cochrane
Posted 7/05/16, 12:05 pm
The nation of France has bestowed one of its highest military decorations—the Legion of Honor—on a 91-year-old American, a World War II veteran who, as a B-17 crewman, flew 30 bombing missions over occupied France in preparation for the Allied invasion.
James Facos, who lives in Montpelier, Vt., said he was startled after opening his mail last week and finding a certificate from French President François Hollande naming him as a chevalier—a knight—in France’s Legion of Honor.
The honor is also one of France’s oldest, first given out by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. After the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 2004, the French began to award it to U.S. veterans who had distinguished themselves in the defense of France against Nazi Germany in World War II.
In the letter accompanying the certificate and medal, Valery Freland, France’s consul general in Boston, wrote that the award “is a sign of France’s infinite gratitude and appreciation for your personal and precious contribution to the United States’ decisive role in the liberation of our country in World War II.”
Facos served as a ball-turret gunner on a B-17. The ball turret—a plexiglass hemisphere attached to the plane’s underbelly—could swivel in all directions. Facos used its two 50-caliber machine guns to take out German fighters so his plane could drop its load of bombs. The quarters were so tight in the turret there was no room to wear a parachute.
“I never wore a ’chute during combat, so that made it more interesting,” Facos said, adding that bathroom breaks during nine- to 10-hour missions weren’t possible either. “You went before you got in [the turret] and then, that was it.”
After the war, Facos earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and taught English for many years at Vermont College in Montpelier, which later was assimilated into Norwich University in Northfield, Vt. He is also a published author, having written novels, plays, and poetry.
His son, Tony Facos, Montpelier’s chief of police, said his father never talked much about his war experiences.
“I had to pry stuff out of him. He didn’t want to talk about it,” said the younger Facos, adding that he was proud of his father and thought the French honor and the medal that accompanies it was “kind of cool.”
The Army Air Corps awarded the then 19-year-old James Facos the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism in aerial flight. Years later, Facos still evinces the sense of duty and service that kept him going mission after mission.
“You’re aware of death. But the idea is that there are things that are much more important than death,” he said. “Death is not important; it’s what you do in your time that counts.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Michael is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent.