Seventy years ago, 20-year-old John B. “Jack” Stockton enlisted in the Army Air Cadet program.
Two years later, the Johnstown native was part of 450th BG, 722nd Squadron flying bombing missions overseas.
Stockton went on to fly 27 bombing missions for the 450th, including four missions over France.
For his service, Stockton recently was honored at the French Embassy in Washington.
He and 18 other military veterans from across the country received the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award for national service.
“It’s something I never expected,” said Stockton, 91, from his wheelchair at Laurel View Village in Davidsville.
“I had no idea they would give such a high medal for something that we were asked to do,” he said.
It was part of the commemorations of D-Day. France decorated the World War II veterans at the French Embassy on June 6, said Richard Bosserman, who accompanied Stockton to Washington.
“You have been named a ‘Chevalier’ of the Legion of Honor, as a sign of France’s gratitude for your personal contribution to the liberation of our country during World War II,” Olivier Serot Almeras, consul general of France, said in a letter to Stockton.
Stockton, a graduate of Johnstown High School, was married for 64 years to his high school sweetheart, the former Mary Louise Thomas, who died April 4, 2010. The couple have one daughter, Dr. Anne Stockton, a psychiatrist living in New York City.
The steely veteran said he remembers his first bombing run in a B-24 on July 15, 1944.
The target was heavily fortified oil refineries in Ploiesti, Romania.
“They had five or six oil refineries there and they supplied Germany with about one-third of their oil,” he said. “They briefed us that the Germans would have about 200 anti-aircraft guns. It turned out they had 700.”
Scared but unyielding, Stockton said he was determined to complete the mission.
“When you’re in your plane and anti-aircraft fire is going of all around your area, sure you’re scared,” he said. “But you’re also determined to carry out your mission as best you can.”
On one of the three bombing runs in Ploiesti, the hydraulic system was damaged, leaving desperate airmen with the chore of cranking the landing gear by hand to avoid having to parachute from the plane.
“It was an awful lot of cranking,” he recalled. “You would have to be careful what you did. Normally it functioned well. But sometimes you came back with 200 holes in the plane.”
Anne Stockton said she is proud of her father the other veterans who were honored at the embassy.
“It’s been so many years since the experience,” she said. “To have something like this in the twilight of their years is really exciting.”
Her father shouldered much responsibility at an early age, she said.
“At such a young age to be forced into those circumstances, the responsibility he had and the way he weathered it, I think, is extraordinary,” Anne Stockton said.
None of Stockton’s 10-member crew were lost during the war. But now he is the lone survivor.
“Heck, I’m 91. That’s not bad,” he said, with laughter. “That’s not good either.”
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