AUGUSTA — Donald Tuttle was just 19 years old when, as the tail gunner of a B-24 Liberator bomber in World War II, he flew missions directly into barrages of exploding anti-aircraft fire as his crew bombed submarine pens in France, oil fields in Ploiesti, Romania, and other targets all over southern Europe.
He still has nightmares, at the age of 89, about seeing men and planes shot down and the other ravages of World War II, during which he flew 50 bombing missions. Those included a mission over northern Italy in which his plane was shot down and he parachuted into enemy territory, and a member of his crew, his friend, died when his parachute became entangled with their plummeting plane.
The longtime Augusta resident recently gained something more than nightmares to remember his wartime efforts to help liberate France during the war, when he received the French Legion of Honor medal, France’s highest distinction.
“This decoration is a representation of France’s unending gratitude to you and your fellow compatriots for your contributions during World War II,” Fabien Fieschi, the Boston-based consul general of France, wrote to Tuttle in a letter announcing he had been appointed a Chevalier, or knight, in the French Legion of Honor. “Your contribution to the liberation of France is an exemplary model for all future generations, particularly as both French and American troops are still engaged in the fight for freedom in other parts of the world.”
The new medal joins Tuttle’s already impressive array of medals recognizing his military service in World War II, including multiple air medals, a Purple Heart, a medal from Greece, the Victory Medal, and seven battle stars for fighting in seven campaigns in the war.
But he’s never been knighted before.
“I’m proud to be honored by France. You don’t see too many guys with this,” Tuttle said of the medal, which he received by mail because he didn’t want to travel for a ceremony in September.
It’s an award Tuttle, who served in the Army Air Forces, almost didn’t survive the war to receive. The well-worn red metal ripcord from his parachute, which is in the same wooden box where he keeps his medals, testifies to that.
On his 40th mission, as they were to bomb the Brenner Pass, his plane got hit by flak and lost power, falling some 9,000 feet. The flak ripped a gash in their fuel tank, which Tuttle’s friend plugged as best he could with his jacket. That friend would later go down with the plane when his parachute caught on the tail skid of the bomber. Tuttle said the man was a hero, and his plugging the hole in the gas tank allowed the plane to nearly reach friendly territory before it finally ran out of fuel and went down.
Tuttle bailed out of the plane and pulled his ripcord. Nothing happened. No parachute came out. He tried again. And again. Still no chute.
“I had to dig it out with my fingernails,” Tuttle said of his parachute. By the time it deployed, he was nearly at the treetops. He landed hard but wasn’t seriously injured. But he was in enemy territory, in Italy, about a mile north of the British Army’s front lines.
The next day, after assistance from a local girl and her family, he was rescued by British troops.
When he was flown back to his base, he told his commanding officer he was quitting – he just couldn’t do it anymore. But he still had 10 more missions to fly before he’d have 50 missions and be allowed to return home. Quitting wasn’t an option.
“They said, ‘We’ll send you to the Isle of Capri (where servicemen went for rest and recreation) for a week and you’ll forget all about it.’” Tuttle said. “Well, I didn’t forget.”
Tuttle’s missions over France included several 1944 bombing runs in which they “bombed the hell out of” submarine pens in Toulon from their base in southern Italy, destroying them. The submarines, Tuttle said, were sinking ships in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea that were carrying supplies and troops to Europe.
The subs were protected by hundreds of anti-aircraft guns that put up a wall of exploding shells.
“You had to fly right through it, because the target was right below it,” Tuttle said of the anti-aircraft fire. “If you went around it, you’d miss the target. It was scary stuff. That’s why I have nightmares, still.”
They lost planes and men every time the bombers flew.
Fieschi, in his letter to Tuttle sent with the medal, said, “France will never forget the sacrifices made by the American soldiers for the cause of Freedom.”
Keith Edwards can be contacted at 621-5647 or at: