ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The young boys who didn't come back are the real heroes of World War II.
That's how Albuquerque resident John Rumancik feels about his service in the effort to liberate Europe from Nazi Germany's grip more than seven decades ago.
But the French government believes Rumancik and other American soldiers who did come back are heroes for their roles in the war effort.
The 94-year-old former tail gunner was honored earlier this year with France's Legion of Honor medal, an award that was first created by French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.
Rumancik flew eight missions as a staff sergeant with the 8th Air Force 392nd Bomber Group's 576th Squad. And he found out just how dangerous it was to be a member of a flight crew shortly after enlisting in the U.S. Army Air Forces at the age of 18 in 1943.
He had hopes of becoming a pilot and was looking forward to aviation cadet pilot training.
"Due to extreme bomber losses by German planes and flak (anti-aircraft fire), our pilot training was canceled and we were assigned as gunners and engineers," Rumancik said.
Rumancik, who grew up near Pittsburgh, found himself selected as a tail gunner on a B-24 Liberator bomber. After taking basic training in Biloxi, Mississippi, and gunnery training in Panama City, Florida, Fort Meyers, Florida, and Charleston, South Carolina, he was assigned as a member of a B-24 crew that was based out of Wendling, England.
At the age of 20, he found himself flying combat missions over Germany, France and Austria in 1944-45.
"You know when you're 20, you feel like you can run through a wall," he said.
One of the missions he flew was over Bordeaux-Royan, France.
"It was the first-and-only use by heavy bombers of 500-pound napalm tank bombs to destroy a giant German submarine base," Rumancik said.
The destruction of the base allowed the Allies to capture territory in southern France.
"Our crew was the lead plane in this formation," he said.
Another mission took him over Cologne, Germany.
"The only thing left standing was the cathedral," Rumancik said. "The whole town was just obliterated."
And he recalled flying over Omaha Beach following the D-Day invasion.
"There was nothing but devastation," he said. "It was unbelievable."
A few things still stand out from the missions. Rumancik remembers the extreme cold, saying temperatures "reached 40 to 60 degrees below zero."
"It would freeze the oxygen masks, and you would have to squeeze and crush the ice from the sides of the rubber mask for oxygen," he said.
He also said there wasn't radar or air traffic control.
"Everything was based on visual sight," Rumancik said. "The weather was usually overcast and caused many mid-air collisions."
Following Germany's surrender, he was assigned to a crew that trained for missions against Japan. But the Japanese surrendered before he was assigned to the Pacific theater.
He worked as a postmaster in Crucible, Pennsylvania, after the war from 1949-86, before he and his wife, Lucy, retired and moved to New Mexico. He and Lucy, who have been married almost 70 years, returned to Europe in 2007, where they visited Normandy, Auschwitz and other war sites.
In 2016, he had the experience of flying in a restored B-24 called "Witchcraft" in Albuquerque.
"What an experience," he said. "The last time I flew in it was in World War II."
Rumancik is the last remaining member of his flight crew.
"I wished some of them were still alive so I can share this honor with them," he said of receiving the Legion of Honor medal.