Two Pinellas World War II veterans to receive French Legion of Honor

The sacrifices of the men and women of the "Greatest Generation," called to duty in what many call the last Great War, have not gone unacknowledged.

Even now — more than 60 years after the fact.

Two Pinellas County residents, each a bomber crewman during World War II who flew missions where survival odds were at times worse than a coin flip, will be honored today — and not just by their own countrymen on Veterans Day, but by those who they aided so many decades ago.

Eddie Deerfield, 87, who retired as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, and Jack Caravello, 86, who left the Army Air Corps as a staff sergeant and worked in sales before his wartime injuries forced him to retire, were selected to receive the French Legion of Honor.

"It's the highest military distinction in France," said Fernando Fornaris, a representative of the French consulate in Miami.

According to a consulate statement about why the awards are only now being presented to Americans who fought for French liberation from Nazi rule: "France cannot, and will not forget them. Their memory will live forever in the heart of the French people."

Caravello, who lives in Dunedin, was supposed to receive his award at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., but wasn't healthy enough to attend.

Deerfield, a Palm Harbor resident, plans to travel to a ceremony today in Naples, where he will be honored alongside nine other veterans from the state.

During the war, each man lived through his own day of days with both tenderness, and melancholy.

Deerfield recalls the war with passion, and despite its tragedy, the friends lost and his own combat wounds, a fondness for a time when uncommon bravery, by necessity, was a daily occurrence.

He flew 30 missions as a radio operator-gunner aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress, the workhorse bomber that helped cripple the German war machine.

On his 14th mission, a raid on German submarine pens near Nantes, France, an engine caught fire and forced the crew to bail out just as the plane returned to England.

He exited backward, and blacked out when he hit the ground.

When Deerfield regained consciousness in a field somewhere outside Southampton — in friendly territory, after surviving his second plane crash of the war so far — he faced death yet again, this time by pitchfork.

After fending off waves of Luftwaffe fighters and flak in Europe, the dazed Chicagoan faced an end he hadn't exactly anticipated:

Skewering by a scared English farmer.

"When I came to, he had his pitchfork pressed against my chest," Deerfield said. "He thought we were Nazis."

What convinced the old farmer to relent was the then-20-year-old's American accent.

The Army Air Corps tech sergeant went on to fly 16 more sorties over France and Germany.

"I look at it as the highlight of my life," Deerfield said of the war.

Mission after mission wore on the men, however. Survival rates for bomber crews were among the lowest of all units in the war.

Caravello was almost one of those casualties.

During the Battle of the Bulge, when the German forces nearly broke American lines in the Ardennes Forest, Caravello's bomber, also a B-17, was shot down.

He was able to scramble away from the wreckage and was aided by a priest, then taken in by French resistance fighters. He hid out with them until the Germans were pushed back.

Despite the precedent that a downed airman who escaped from behind enemy lines be spared more flights — for fear they could be seen as spies and not treated with usual prisoner of war status — Caravello found himself back in the gunner's chair.

"They were short of gunners and crews, they shot down so many," he said. "I had to go back."

But when he finished his 30 missions, Caravello did get to go home. His experience provides a kinship with today's soldiers, with whom he empathizes.

"It's different today," he said. "Those poor guys have to go back three and four times," he said.

Dominick Tao can be reached at dtao@sptimes.com or (727) 580-2951

Two Pinellas World War II veterans to receive French Legion of Honor 11/10/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 10, 2010 7:46pm]

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