Petersham man honored by French Legion of Honor for service during WWII

Bill Purple, congratulated by Mary Lou Schwab, joined the US Army Air Forces at 17.
Bill Purple, congratulated by Mary Lou Schwab, joined the US Army Air Forces at 17. Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The first time Bill Purple flew a B-17 was 1943. At the ages of 18 and 19, he flew 35 missions as lead pilot, dropping bombs over Germany during World War II.

On Friday, Purple, who is now 89 and lives in Petersham, took another ride in the aircraft, after being honored by France for his service during the war.

Purple was named a chevalier, or knight, by the French Legion of Honor for his service as an allied bomber. He received his medal during a ceremony at the Orange Municipal Airport.

Purple described the moment when French Consul General Fabien Fieschi pinned the medal on him as “extraordinary.”


Purple, who grew up in Athol, joined the US Army Air Forces at 17 with his mother’s permission. He trained at bases across the country and earned his pilot’s license. He eventually flew to Europe, where he completed his 35 missions leading groups of bombers over Germany in his B-17 as the head of the formation.

One of those missions was the Battle of the Bulge, Purple recalled.

“At 18 or 19, what did you care?” he said after the ceremony Friday, explaining that he only felt so much fear, even when being shot at. “You went and hopefully got back.”

He rose through the ranks and made captain by 1945.

The service to honor Purple was held in the shadow of the B-17. Anthems were sung and speeches were made. The audience heard about the history of the French Legion of Honor from Fieschi and heard some war stories from Purple.

“It was a wonderful ceremony,” said Purple’s daughter, Cindy Hartwell. “My Dad is vibrant . . . he’s just amazing.”

After the ceremony concluded, Purple and some of his friends jumped into the B-17 for a flight to Worcester. Purple sat in the radio booth and looked out the plane’s window to the wing and engine and reminisced about his time as a pilot.


When reflecting on his many flights in the B-17 and the emotions he felt during war, Purple said: “You carry it with you . . . It’s pretty moving.”

Melissa Hanson can be reached at melissa.hanson@
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