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Local World War II veteran to receive French Legion of Honor

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    Jim Debth with some of the medals received for his service in the U.S. Army Air Corps, now the U.S. Air Force. Debth was a waist gunner on B-17s in the 728th bomb squadron 452nd bomb group during World War II. He flew 25 missions and received several medals from the U.S.

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    A First Aid kit given to Jim Debth after his service, top left, and some items he carried with him.

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    Tech Sgt. James Debth in an undated photograph. He believes it was taken in England before he started flying.

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    Jim Debth at home in Temperance, Michigan.

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TEMPERANCE — James Debth's war medals neatly hang in a framed display inside his southeast Michigan home, and after Saturday, perhaps he'll try to make room for one more.

Mr. Debth, 94, is a decorated World War II veteran who successfully flew 25 missions in a B-17 bomber. The native Ohioan will travel to Conneaut, Ohio, this weekend where he will receive the French Legion of Honor from the French Consulate.

WATCH: Jim Debth will receive the French Legion of Honor

More than 70 years have passed since Mr. Debth flew his final mission, but he remains sharp and can recall every detail from his time overseas. His daughter, Judy Johnson, said he didn't talk much about his experiences when he was younger.

"I feel blessed he's been my dad and I feel like God has answered a lot of prayers in his life," Ms. Johnson said. "He probably realizes that even more now."

Life of an airman

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Tech Sgt. James Debth in an undated photograph. He believes it was taken in England before he started flying.

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Mr. Debth grew up in Point Place and graduated from Waite High School in 1942. He was drafted less than a year later, and that's when the self-described "bashful kid" was forced to grow up in a hurry.

The 18-year-old completed his training and was shipped off to England. He was stationed in Deopham Green with the 452nd Bomb Group in the 8th Air Force. From there, Mr. Debth and his crew gathered their gear and boarded their plane whenever the green flare at the base went off.

Mr. Debth served as a radio operator and waist gunner during bombing runs over France and Germany. Each morning, the crew entered the briefing room to get their assignments.

"The guy pulled the curtain back and it showed where you were going that day," Mr. Debth said. "If you heard any moans, you knew some of the guys had already been there. Then they gave the radio operator the frequency of the day."

Once Mr. Debth squeezed into the cramped B-17 with nine other men, he readied the radio equipment for the pilot. Then, he returned to the middle of the plane and manned one of the two waist gunner positions, overlooking the side of the aircraft.

Temperatures inside B-17s could reach minus-50 degrees, especially in early models. The most common injury reported during the war among airmen was frostbite.

Mr. Debth bundled up in a heated suit that plugged into the plane.

"They always said not to take your gloves off," Mr. Debth said. "I thought I'd try it out. I had sheepskin gloves on, took my hand out, and put it on the radio desk. Holy Toledo, was it cold."

The frigid temperatures may have been a blessing in disguise for Mr. Debth, at least for one mission.

During his 10th mission, Mr. Debth was shot though the leg by an enemy plane during a bombing run on a German target. The round went through the back of his leg and out the other side of the plane. Mr. Debth still has a piece of shrapnel left in the bullet's path.

He surmises he only lost a "couple tablespoons" of blood because the cold air constricted his blood vessels. Mr. Debth spent six weeks recovering in the hospital before visiting a flight surgeon who told him he couldn't fly if he was still on crutches.

"I begged to get back on the crew," Mr. Debth said. "I went back the next day, and put the crutches up against the side of the building and walked in. I asked if I was back on flight status. The surgeon says, 'Let me see you walk across the room.' I said, 'Not a problem.'"

The 452nd was tasked with bombing targets like enemy airplane and ball-bearing factories, oil wells, and anything else the Nazis relied on to stay alive in the conflict.

Mr. Debth said he took his fair share of deep breaths during bombing runs when Axis planes tried to interfere.

"I wasn't really scared," he said. "I knew somebody wasn't going to come back that day, but it wasn't going to be us. But there were times I would sit at the radio desk and I really had my doubts."

One of the closest calls for Mr. Debth came Jan. 10, 1945, on his 25th and final mission, this one with a brand new crew. The pilot got lost on the way back from a bomb run and the aircraft was running low on fuel. Dense fog moved into the area and reduced visability to essentially zero. 

"I look out the radio room window and there's a hole in the clouds at 9 o'clock, and I see some planes taxiing around down there," Mr. Debth said. "So the pilot just peeled off, went down, and landed. He pulls into the hard stand. As I got out of the plane, I see my [other] pilot waiting for me. What are the odds you land at your own field?

"I got the 25th mission in and the pilot says, 'I talked to CO and things are winding down. You just flew your last mission.' I kissed the ground and said, 'Thank you, Lord.'"

‘A really big deal’

Mr. Debth will be one of about 150 World War II veterans in attendance for this weekend's D-Day Conneaut.

The annual living history event started 19 years ago with about 20 vets. World War II veterans liaison Eric Montgomery said it has turned into the world's largest gathering of WWII vets.

The two-day affair is filled with events, Q&As, and re-enactments. Mr. Debth will tell his story before receiving France's highest honor Saturday. The French Legion of Honor medal was established in 1802 by Napoleon to recognize bravery and service.

"In France, if these gentlemen received the Legion of Honor, they would read their names, pin the medal on them, and go to the next guy," Mr. Montgomery said. "Here, we have an opportunity to be a little more informative of what each man did to earn it. This is a really big deal."

Mr. Montgomery said 1,800 re-enactors will stage four battles. The itinerary also includes ceremonies, a veterans dinner, and a dance with music from the 1940s.

The weekend is also an opportunity for veterans to chat with others who served their country. They are given a pen and paper to trade contact information with those they meet.

"For many of them, this is a way to reawaken their senses," Mr. Montgomery said. "A lot of them don't have any more buddies."

Mr. Debth said about 10,000 Americans have received the medal. A few other World War II veterans will also join him on-stage to receive their own.

"I'm accepting it for me, my crew, and the 452nd Bomb Group," Mr. Debth said. "Our crew was like brothers. All of them would have laid down their lives for you — no question."

The French Consulate out of Chicago will award the medals. Midwest Consul General Guillaume Lacroix will do the honors on behalf on French President Emmanuel Macron.

"Someone like James Debth along with the three others deserve to be recognized for what they did for France," Mr. Lacroix said. "The French people will never forget. We keep strong memories. You saved our country, our independence, and our democracy."

Contact Jay Skebba at jskebba@theblade.com, 419-376-9414, or on Twitter @JaySkebba.

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