It’s hard to believe now. Even then it was rare.

“I have never heard of a B-24 pilot who was younger than I was,” said Faulkner, now 88. The 1942 graduate of Highland Park High School still doesn’t know why he was put in pilot training a year younger than most.

But he confesses that he loved it all. “I was in heaven. I loved everything about it. It sounds petty to say, but I even loved the look of that officer’s uniform. I was lucky, and I knew I was lucky.”

Lt. Faulkner had flown 27 missions from his base in Italy into German-occupied territories to the north. On the 28th mission, his luck ran out.

One of his four engines wasn’t operating at full power from the start. Then another engine on the big Liberator was knocked out over Germany. Its propeller malfunctioned and created a hard drag.

“We began losing altitude. It felt like the loopty-loop at the State Fair,” he said.

As the plane sank lower and lower, he considered his options. “I wanted to get back to our base in Italy, but I didn’t think I could make it over the Alps,” he said.

He thought about trying to reach friendly territory in France. But ultimately he had to make an emergency landing in Switzerland.

That was a neutral country, of course, and by the rules of the Geneva Convention, he and his crew were permanently forced out of combat. “You’re out. You’re through,” he said, still sounding defeated.

He briefly returned to his base in Italy before heading home. And there the navigator from another crew made an offhand comment. “They said when you left the formation, it looked like all four fans were flying,” the navigator said — meaning all four engines were working.

Faulkner assured him otherwise, but the comment ate at him. It suggested he had landed in Switzerland without good reason. “I had to assume that if he thought that, others thought that,” Faulkner said.

Then, not long after the war, one more incident fanned the flames of doubt. At a golf course in Dallas, Faulkner thought he saw a captain he had served with in Europe. “I called out to him, ‘Captain Jacobs!’ He didn’t turn around. I hollered again. ‘Captain Jacobs!’ But he never looked back.

“Maybe he didn’t hear me. Maybe it wasn’t even him,” Faulkner said. “Or maybe he didn’t want to talk to me because he thought I was a coward.”

They may seem trivial now, but those two small incidents plagued Faulkner’s mind for decades. He carried on with life, of course. He and his wife, Ann, will be happily married for 65 years in December. They have two children. He had a successful insurance career.

But many a night he tossed and turned, replaying those long-ago decisions in his mind. It worsened when he retired and had even more time to think. Had he put down in Switzerland too quickly? Should he have tried for France or Italy?

All his adult life, Faulkner was plagued with sore throats. He saw doctor after doctor and had four surgeries to try to correct the problem. Finally, a doctor sent him to a psychiatrist, who suggested that the culprit might be his obsession with the wartime landing. Stress can do strange things.

Salvation finally came via a casual mention.

Dan Matthews, 59, lives outside Minneapolis. For years, his hobby has been researching World War II aviation records. It started with research on his late father’s military service, moved on to uncles and then to others.

Back in March, a mutual friend briefly mentioned Faulkner’s service to Matthews, who couldn’t resist doing a little digging. And what he found was a bona fide hero.

Unbeknownst to Faulkner, the military had looked into his landing in Switzerland and deemed it an incredible act of courage and skill. Flak damage to the plane was so great that it was nearly unflyable.

“It was a very chaotic situation, but he managed to save the plane and the crew,” Matthews said. “Throughout the situation he showed brave and courageous behavior — and at 19 years old, no less.”

A still bigger surprise awaited. Matthews kept digging in the military records. And though Faulkner never knew it, several months after the emergency landing, the military awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Imagine it. Faulkner had worried all his life about his actions that day and how others judged them. And all that time, his military file contained a citation for “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”

A few weeks ago, Faulkner’s whole family showed up at his house to surprise him with news of his medal. “I nearly broke down,” he confessed.

“You did break down!” his wife corrected.

Faulkner can still barely fathom it. “The citation was for my 28th mission — the one I had worried about all this time. They said I did the right thing, that I saved the crew.”

He steadfastly waves off any suggestion that he’s a hero. He puts the focus on Matthews. “To me, he’s a saint. He’s my savior,” he said.

The two men will meet face to face for the first time today. Matthews is traveling here for a ceremony at the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Fort Worth, where Faulkner will officially be presented with the Distinguished Flying Cross.

“I still can’t believe it,” he said. “But I do sleep at night now. And my throat hasn’t been sore one time — and never will be again.”

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