BRATTLEBORO >> Seventy-two years after he participated in bombing runs over occupied Europe, Jay Karpin was recognized by the Consul General of France in Boston, with a Legion of Honor medal, France's highest civil and military decoration.
"I received this package in the mail from Cambridge, Mass.," said Karpin, from his home in Brattleboro. "I looked at the letter, but I couldn't say anything. My daughter read it and said, 'Oh, my God. Do you know what this is? This is the highest award from France to people who don't live there."
Karpin, born in the Bronx, served in the Army Air Force from 1942 to 1945 as a bombardier and navigator. Assigned in 1944 to the 493rd Bombardment Group, the last bomb group of the 8th Air Force to become operational in Europe, Karpin, a lieutenant, was the bombardier on one of the first crews flying over Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day.
His group flew 152 bombing missions over Europe. Karpin was part of 35 of them.
In addition to the Legion of Honor award he received on Monday, Karpin also received a Distiniguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters, the European-African-Middle Easter Campaign Medal with four service stars, a Presidential Unit Citation from Franklin D. Roosevelt, and a personal citation from General James Harold Doolittle.
Karpin, who turns 92 on June 23, joined the Army Air Corps the day after his 18th birthday in 1942, just after graduating from Hicksville High School, on Long Island. Karpin, who learned how to fly light aircraft before he graduated, wanted to enlist as a pilot, but he was told he had to have at least two years of college to do so.
"But I passed the test and they let me in and I qualified as a navigator and bombardier."
From the enlistment center he was sent to San Antonio, Texas, for ground training, then on to 16 weeks of training as what he called, a bombargator. He received a commission and became a second lieutenant shortly afterward. His next stop was Salt Lake City, where he was integrated into a group of 10 men to fly in a B-24.
"Our pilot, Don Hogan, was the most fantastic guy I've ever known. He was 26 or 27 and could fly anything," said Karpin. They flew their brand new B-24 by celestial navigation to England, which included a seven-day stop in Iceland because of snow.
"The engines wouldn't start it was so cold. We had to build fires under them to get them started."
Karpin, after two years of training, was ready for his first flight, but little did he know it would be in support of the D-Day invasion.
"We were flying simulated combat mission over England and we saw all these depots full of equipment. We though something big was going to happen, but we didn't know when."
He and his fellow crew members speculated that the invasion would happen somewhere in Scandinavia before progressing down into Germany.
Instead, his wing was sent over the English Channel to bomb targets behind enemy lines.
"Obviously we couldn't bomb the beach where the invasion was happening. We were sent to destroy installations 20 to 30 miles inside France and roads so the Germans couldn't reinforce their defenses.
After 12 missions in the B-24, he and his crew were moved to a B-17, which Hogan had originally trained on.
"I disliked the nose in the B-24. I couldn't see forward unless I got down on my knees. But on the B-17, I got to sit up front in a big seat with all glass in front of me.
Karpin has no explanation except luck, as to why his crew survived so many combat missions but others didn't.
"Our pilot, co-pilot and chief engineer were all Irish. If anything was looking over our shoulders, it was a four-leaf clover."
Karpin was injured in the hip during one mission, but he remembers seeing a plane that was flying alongside his explode and another spinning toward the ground.
"We flew one mission and before we got to the target, German fighters had shot down 12 airplanes, 120 guys, some of whom were my friends."
Karpin was sent back to the United States on Christmas Eve, 1944.
When asked if he and his fellow crew members understood the magnitude of World War II, Karpin said, "We felt what we were doing was just preventing the Nazis from invading England and going any further. It didn't really hit any of us for many years that what we all did was saved the world from the Nazis."
Karpin considered a career in the service, but then something else happened.
"I met this beautiful girl in a bar. She took my breath away."
Even though she was engaged to another man at the time, Karpin didn't give up.
"I was a wild kid. Nothing could deter me. She said you are a nice guy, but I'm not going to marry you."
At the same time, his father wanted him to get a chemistry degree and join him in the cosmetics business.
But Karpin built a house not a half block away from her parents' home and Florence Baker became Florence Baker Karpin.
"This woman was so talented. She was a poet and could sit down at the piano and play anything."
The pair were married for 67 years. Florence Baker Karpin died two years ago.
Eventually, they moved to Vermont, living in several towns, including Grafton, where he was on the Select Board for nearly two decades. Karpin was a machinist by trade, and worked for Richard Stover at his Vermont Research Corp., in Springfield. VRC was a pioneer in the computer industry, making rotating magnetic memory devices used in telecommunications and production systems. He also worked at Vermont Tap and Die for 14 years.
A year ago he moved to Brattleboro to be closer to two daughters and their families.
The Legion of Honor was established in 1802 by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and it is exclusively awarded in cases of exemplary military and civilian services. It is the oldest and highest honor in France. The Legion of Honor is awarded by decree of the President of the French Republic.
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.