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WWII veteran who jumped from plane on 90th birthday gets long-overdue medals

AUGUSTA, Maine -- An Exeter man with a 40-year military career spanning three wars finally accepted the service medals he was due during a ceremony in Augusta on Saturday.

U.S. Sen. Angus King presented the medals to Lester Slate, who was flanked by about 30 friends and family members, as well as state and military officials. Slate received the Distinguished Flying Cross, an award reserved for service members who distinguish themselves through "heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight."

Slate, who turns 92 in July, also received an Air Medal, an award with slightly lower requirements than the Distinguished Flying Cross, but one that still calls for service "with distinction above and beyond that expected of professional airmen."

King also presented Slate with the World War II Victory Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, the Navy Occupation Service Medal, a discharge button and an honorable service lapel pin.

Slate was co-pilot in a Martin PBM Mariner, which he describes as a "big flying boat," a float plane with a 118-foot wingspan, throughout WWII. He would fly 43 missions in the same plane by war's end.

The heroism awards stemmed from an impromptu 1945 rescue mission in the Pacific Ocean, just a few dozen miles from Okinawa. A pilot who had been on strafing runs of a nearby island was shot down and forced to ditch in the ocean.

In 40-knot winds and rough seas, with 20-foot waves, Slate's PBM landed and pulled the downed pilot aboard, rescuing him from hostile waters. One of the plane's twin tails was ripped off during landing, so the crew couldn't take off again and had to wait for another plane to come pick them up once the sea calmed, Slate said.

"Indeed, nearly 70 years ago and in the face of great danger, Captain Slate put his own life on the line to rescue a fellow service member stranded helplessly in enemy waters," King said in a statement released after the ceremony. "For that incredible act of heroism, and for his extraordinary four decades of service, he deserves not only these commendations, but the unending gratitude of our nation as well. It was a privilege to join with his family and friends to present him his medals this morning, and I am grateful for all that he has done for our nation."

One of Slate's closest calls during the war was during a recon mission in the South China Sea, where his PBM was searching for Japanese ships. The crew spotted several ships one day and surveyed them from just out of range of the ships' guns -- or at least that's what Slate and his fellow crew members thought. The ships opened fire and a pair of flak rounds went off just 20 feet below the PBM, punching holes in its wings.

"We dumped the nose over and got the hell out of there," Slate said.

Slate served in the Navy from 1942 to 1952. After that, he served in the U.S. Coast Guard from 1952 to 1982. He was active during both the Korean and Vietnam wars, but was never in combat there.

Coincidentally, when Slate first joined the Coast Guard, he was assigned to a PBM -- the same one he had flown throughout WWII. He flew rescue missions, searched for icebergs, and even sniffed out moonshiners running liquor during his long Coast Guard career.

Slate gained a bit of fame and admiration in 2012 when he decided to jump out of a perfectly good airplane to celebrate his 90th birthday.

He plans to celebrate his 100th birthday the same way.

"I'm still going pretty good, except for my vision," Slate said, citing recent problems with cataracts.

Slate said that King thanked him for his many years of service and called him a "hero."

"I didn't really feel that way," Slate said. "It was just my job at the time."

Asked whether he planned on doing anything as exciting as skydiving to celebrate receiving his medals, Slate said he would probably hold off.

"I think I've had all the excitement I need for a while," he said.

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