Jerome "Jerry" Wurmser risked his life flying fighter planes over France in World War II, helping drive out German forces that had occupied the country for four years.
In November, France thanked Wurmser by awarding him the Legion of Honor, a medal that recognizes people who have served the French nation in various ways. The decoration was established by Napoleon Bonaparte about 1801.
"I feel very honored, but there are thousands of other people out there who are a heck of a lot more deserving than me," Wurmser said with the modesty typical of WWII veterans.
Wurmser, 88, of Lexington, flew 66 combat missions in a P-47 as a member of the Army Air Force's 324th Fighter Group in 1944-45. The unit's primary assignment was strafing and bombing German airfields, truck convoys, supply trains and essentially anything else that might support the Nazi war machine. Other times they supported U.S. troops on the ground, dropping bombs right ahead of them.
Wurmser did get a crack at one of the new jet planes that the German air force brought out in the closing days of the war.
"I slipped up behind him, but I guess I got excited because I opened fire too soon, and he got away," Wurmser said.
On another occasion, he exchanged fire with a German jet, but neither plane was hit.
"Shooting down planes really wasn't our job," he said. "But some of the guys really used to complain about it because that's what they wanted to do."
Wurmser's medal was arranged through the efforts of Gerard Bazin of France, who befriended Wurmser and members of the 324th Fighter Group as a 10-year-old boy during the war. Bazin spent hours watching the pilots take off and land at a base near his home. More than 40 years later, he began attending the group's reunions and today is an honorary member.
Wurmser wanted to stay in the Air Force after the war, but it didn't work out.
"I got to lead a flight, which meant I was in line for a captaincy," he said. "But the war ended the next week and they froze all promotions. I was so ticked off that I decided to get out."
Wurmser hung up his flying clothes nearly 70 years ago, but his love of flying continues.
Recently, he met David Trapp of Lexington, who is part of a group that owns several World War II-era airplanes, including a BT-13 — a trainer like the one Wurmser flew as an instructor during the war.
"David has promised to take me up one of these days," he said. "I'd like to see if I could still take one off and land it again."