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Bill Hartshorn talks Tuesday, December 8, 2015, in his Signal Mountain home.
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Bill Hartshorn stands with a plane in 1944 in Colchester, England.

Bill Hartshorn remembers sitting around a radio with a group of classmates at Dartmouth College on Dec. 7, 1941, and realizing his life was about to change.

More than 74 years since somber voices on the radio informed Hartshorn and his classmates the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, the chain of events set off that day is still at work in his life.

Hartshorn is a 92-year-old father, grandfather and great-grandfather who has lived on Signal Mountain since 1968 with Gloria, his wife of 68 years.

He made a living selling steel, picked up sailing as a hobby, and attends First Presbyterian Church downtown.

But there is another indisputable part of his identity he brushes aside in passing, as if it shouldn't even be considered.

"I wasn't any hero," Hartshorn said.

The people of England and the case of medals on the wall in Hartshorn's office say otherwise.

The English sect of the Aces High Aviation Art Gallery is flying Bill and his wife to Buckinghamshire, England, this weekend to honor him for his service in the acclaimed 56th Fighter Group during World War II.

Hartshorn called the trip "a dream come true."

Of about 150 pilots who served in the 56th Fighter Group, only about 10 are still living and just two are making the trip to England this weekend, Hartshorn said.

"It's unbelievable," he said. "We're going to visit my old air base, which is now a turkey farm."

The 56th Fighter Group was a unit led by Hubert "Hub" Zemke and rose to fame for its numerous victories over the German Luftwaffe. By the time Hartshorn became active with the unit in the spring of 1944, it was primarily tasked with bombing ground targets, such as airfields and railroads.

It didn't eliminate the risk.

Four of the nine who entered the 56th Fighter Group when Hartshorn did were killed within five weeks.

Hartshorn flew 25 missions in the cockpit of his solo-flyer P-47 Thunderbolt before his life came perilously close to ending.

He was shot down during Operation Market Garden, a famous Allied advance that ultimately failed but was featured in the 1977 movie "A Bridge Too Far."

"We had a bad day," Hartshorn said. "I got hit by groundfire and was able to pull up and fly back a few minutes back into friendly territory. I couldn't crash land because my wheels were down. And in rough country, the airplane would end up on its back. So as soon as I saw American trucks, I knew I could bail out."

Hartshorn jumped out of his plane, hitting his leg on the aircraft and parachuting to the ground. He spent more than a year in hospitals in Belgium, Paris, Wales and Staten Island, N.Y., recovering and was awarded a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and several other medals.

At the time, Hartshorn said, it felt like a disappointing end to his flying career.

"You love the plane, the people, and you felt patriotic doing something for your country," he said.

By the time he was fully recovered, the war had ended and Hartshorn returned to Dartmouth in New Hampshire. He met Gloria, who was studying at nearby Colby Junior College for Women.

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That's when he took on one of his riskiest missions yet.

Gloria's father didn't think they should get married until Bill was out of college. They didn't listen and were married in 1947 before Hartshorn returned to the Air Force for the Korean War.

"One war wasn't enough," Gloria said.

But it was different this time. Hartshorn had returned because of his passion for flying, but he was assigned to work in radar operations, and this time he had to spend a year away from Gloria and two young daughters.

He returned, settling in Atlanta and then moving to Chattanooga.

As the years passed since the World War II heroics of the 56th Fighter Group, those closest to Hartshorn learned the depth of his service.

"He didn't talk about a thing to do with the war until we started going to reunions," Gloria said. "Then I heard a lot of stories from him and all the other guys."

Like many other units which served in various branches of the military during the war, the 56th Fighter Group has stopped having reunions because of dwindling numbers. But the people he served for continue to remember their service.

So much so they are flying him over there one more time.

"The English are very history oriented," Hartshorn said. "And they remember the Yanks who were over there."

Reflecting on his service and the twists and turns that led him to where he is today, Hartshorn cited Romans 8:28, which in the New International Version of the Bible says, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."

It might have been hard for him to predict as a college freshman listening to the radio 74 years ago just how that verse would play out in his life.

"This is Chattanooga's great fighter pilot," said Leroy Hite, who attends church with Hartshorn. "He's a hero and most people don't know about him because he's too modest."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

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