Howard Croner's home is replete with memories of his time in the US Army Air Forces during World War II. A flight bag here, a rack of medals there, a gurka knife here, a bag of undetonated (and fortunately, deactivated) German cluster bombs there. They're all memories of Howard's time in England, France, Germany, Belgium, Russia - and beyond.
On Tuesday, yet another memory of his time as flight engineer and top turret gunner came in a package direct from the French Consulate Chicago office. When Howard opened it, he found a Legion of Honor medal - a medal created by Napoleon and, according to Graham Paul, the Consul General of France in Chicago, "the highest honor that France can bestow upon those who have achieved remarkable deeds for France."
Croner had talked with Emmet County veterans affairs director Deb Tietje about applying for the medal, but never filled out the paperwork. And then he pretty much forgot about it.
Above, Tech. Sgt. Howard Croner with a couple friends on the tail of their B17 after it was strafed by German ME 109s in Poltava, Ukraine.
Photo by Michael Tidemann
"So somebody put my name in apparently," said Croner. As he pondered the medal in his hand, he added, "There's a lot of guys that deserve it."
To receive the Legion of Honor, an airman has to first have the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal and have participated in raids over French territory. Croner did all of that and was on the first wave of bombers on D-Day which "was probably the easiest mission I ever had" with no fighters or flak to contend with.
After D-Day, Croner followed up on other German targets - airfields, railroads, aircraft factories. He and the rest of the crew ranged from targets in France to Lake Constance on the Swiss border to a mission in southern France where they dropped supplies to the Free French army.
As flight engineer and top turret gunner, it was Croner's job to help protect the aircraft from German ME 109s. The B-17 would climb, higher, still higher, to bright, steady cold.
"A streak of warm sunlight came through the ball turret. Otherwise, it was below zero," said Croner.
It was so cold the crew wore electric gloves plugged into their flight suits. That was good, because Croner needed to use his hands to aim the twin .50s at the German aircraft.
"We had the Germans on the run," said Croner. "There was no letup."
The only time a mission would be scrubbed was when cloud cover directly over a target prevented securing a target with the Norden bombsight. Otherwise, the mission was a go. Croner remembered one time taking off, fog so thick they couldn't see the wingtips. As the big bomber lumbered through the mist and into the clouds, it seemed there would be no end of it. "And then the sky was full of B-17s," said Croner.
Probably his worst experience was when three American bomb groups - about 70 B-17s - landed in Poltava, Ukraine. Two German reconnaissance planes streaked overhead, and despite the fact that the Russians had four antiaircraft guns on the field, the Russians never fired a shot.
"I think the Russians hated us as much as they did the Germans back then," Croner said.
That night, German ME 109s strafed the entire field, destroying nearly every aircraft.
Stranded, Croner swapped American cigarettes and soap to a Russian for piles of rubles. Croner figured he was rich - until he got to Libya and was told Russian money wasn't good outside of Russia. So he passed the rubles around and he and his friends lit their cigarettes with it.
Eventually, Croner and the rest of his crew made their way back to the base.
One day he went to the commander and said, "I'm so tired I need out."
"How many missions did you have?" asked the commander.
"Thirty-four?" Since that was well over the 25 required for a tour, he got to go home, but not until after spending the next six months in a convalescent hospital in Florida.
Croner still has ties with Jim Chance who was a bombardier and the last living fellow crew member. Last Christmas, Croner called Chance, and pretending to be Santa Claus, asked, "Have you been a good boy, Jimmy?"
Chance, who later became a lawyer in the Air Force and dined with such dignitaries as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, didn't find whoever it was on the other end of the line very funny.
Maybe a little bit of old Henry rubbed off on him.