On these days, when The 489th Bomb Group has been reactivated during a ceremony at Dyess Air Force Base and will be the first B-1B Lancer Reserve unit in the Air Force, is time to remember Deputy group commander Lt. Col. Leon R. Vance, who was awarded the only Medal of Honor given to a B-24 crewman for action in Europe. Vance lost a foot flying a mission on June 5, 1944, the day before D-Day.
The B-24 bomber’s 10-man crew called the mission a “milk run.” Even the appearance of a newcomer, Lt Col Leon Vance, the command pilot, does not completely dampen their spirits. Experienced bomber crews are often somewhat superstitious. Vance greets them early that morning. He shakes their hands. The crew relaxes under his all-business like demeanor. Lt. Bernard Bail, the radar navigator, later said of Vance, “…he was precisely the sort of leader one wants.” Their mission: lead a group of B-24 Liberators to bomb German defenses just inside the coast of France. It is the 5th of June, 1944.
The crew takes their stations and begins preflight. Upon getting airborne, the Liberator begins its slow circular ascent. The rest of the planes follow. At 10,000 feet, Vance’s crew begins putting on their oxygen masks. The aircraft’s engineer, TSgt Earl Hoppie, checks and rechecks the oxygen supply, gasoline valves, voltage regulators, and instruments. He listens to the loud and steady drone of the four engines. Hoppie has been at his job since two in the morning; doing everything, he can to make sure his plane is ready.
On the flight deck Vance is positioned directly behind and between the pilot and copilot, Capt Louis Mazure, and 1Lt Earl Carper. As command pilot, Vance is in charge of the entire formation. He flies in the lead ship, the Missouri Belle. This is Vance’s second combat mission.
Leon Vance's Crew: Standing (L-R) Pomles, Vance, Baker, Winfield, Holub, Denyes
Kneeling (L-R) Mersch, Shippe, Brieda, Lewis. [Via]
The longest part of the mission was getting the group to form up. Now at an altitude of 23,600 feet, the thin air is a minus 28 degrees. The formation is almost ready. Lt Col Vance fires signal rockets to other planes joining the formation. The Navigator, John Kilgore, says in his Texas drawl, “We’re on our way.” They head for the coast of France.
Instead of hours, it takes only minutes to get to the target’s initial checkpoint. The pilot Mazure has no trouble keeping the bomber steady in the light flak. Segal, the bombardier, prepares to drop the bombs. The other planes follow the Missouri Belle’s lead. They will release their own bombs when they see the lead ship’s bombs fall. Now on target, Segal presses the bomb release, “Bombs away!” he announces.
Hoppie checks the bomb bay. He sees that the twelve 500-pound bombs are still in the rack. He announces drearily over the interphone, “Bombs away, hell. They didn’t release.”
Good leadership often calls for tough decisions. Lt Col. Vance immediately responds, “We’ll make a three-hundred-and-sixty and go over it again.” Vance ignores the grumbling he hears over the interphone. He knows as well as the crew, that the German 88 anti-aircraft guns will now be zeroed in on them. So much for the “milk-run.”
The formation swings out in an arc over the English Channel, and tries again. Glickman announces optimistically from the nose turret, “This will be easy. They’ve only got four guns and I’ve got them spotted.” His optimism is quickly forgotten. The flak is heavy, and the ship is buffeted by ugly black bursts.
Shrapnel from the flak slices though the thin skin of the fuselage, narrowly missing the waist gunners. However, the flak does not miss the fuel lines, or the number 1 engine. Vance orders Hoppie to shut down the fuel valves to the now smoking number 1 engine. Hoppie shuts the valves and tries to plug the leaking gasoline lines with rags. He would later say, “It was like standing in a shower room.” One spark and the ship could explode.
Now over the target, Segal releases the bombs using the salvo release. They all fall earthward save for one, which hangs up in the bomb bay rack. The rest of the formation follows suit, dropping their loads and completing the mission. In the Missouri Belle, the bomb bay doors are left open to let the leaking gasoline escape. A blast of flak shatters the Plexiglas at the nose of the plane, and Segal calls over the interphone that he has been blinded.
A B-24 used by the 489th bomb group in 1944 (American Air Museum)
Meanwhile, up on the flight deck; all hell has broken lose. A burst of flak explodes just under the left wing, smashing the upper turret to one side. A shrapnel fragment strikes Mazure just beneath his flak helmet. He slumps over, dead. Vance feels a sharp stab in his right foot. Seeing that the angling liberator is now in danger of stalling, Vance lunges forward to help the copilot with the controls, but he cannot make it to the pilot’s seat. He looks down to see that his right foot has been shot off, and hangs only by a tendon. It is wedged between the ship’s armor plate and the turret wreckage. Vance stretches forward to reach as much of the controls as he can. He feathers the remaining engines. The instruments and windows are coated with frozen vapor. Vance manages to open one of the windows about 4 inches. He can see the skyline and judge the liberator’s relative position. All but one of the engines go out. He uses only the elevators and ailerons to control the bomber towards the coast of England.
Eighteen minutes later Vance can now see the coast of England and orders the rest of the crew to bail out. He knows there is still a live 500-pound bomb stuck in the bomb bay, but Vance believes that the blinded Segal is trapped in the ship, and too injured to jump out. To give him a chance, Vance stays with the plane and ditches it in the English Channel. Underwater now and pinned in the wreckage, Vance’s lungs are nearly bursting.
Somewhere in the bowels of the ship, an explosion blows Vance clear, and he is suddenly floating on top of the water. He is incredulous that he is still alive. He looks for Segal in the flotsam but cannot find him. Vance tries to climb on an oxygen bottle floating nearby, but keeps slipping off. He can feel himself getting weaker and weaker. An hour slips by. The last thing he remembers is a shape coming towards him through the haze. A British Sea-Air rescue boat pulls the unconscious Vance from the water.
Vance learns in the hospital that the rest of the crew made it back, Segal among them. A true leader, Vance credits his crew during a broadcast BBC interview. He says, “It wasn’t any one thing. There were so many things that might have happened. If Skufca, for example, had failed to switch off his base radio before stepping out of the compartment, a single electric spark might have blown up the ship. If Hoppie had not done this—if Bail had not done that—if any one of the boys had not done their jobs—we might all have been gone. But every one of the boys kept their heads and did a hell of a good job.” [Via]
A B-24 used by the 489th Bomb Group during World War II (National Archives)
Medal of Honor citation
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty.
On 5 June 1944, when he led a Heavy Bombardment Group, in an attack against defended enemy coastal positions in the vicinity of Wimereaux, France. Approaching the target, his aircraft was hit repeatedly by antiaircraft fire which seriously crippled the ship, killed the pilot, and wounded several members of the crew, including Lt. Col. Vance, whose right foot was practically severed. In spite of his injury, and with 3 engines lost to the flak, he led his formation over the target, bombing it successfully. After applying a tourniquet to his leg with the aid of the radar operator, Lt. Col. Vance, realizing that the ship was approaching a stall altitude with the 1 remaining engine failing, struggled to a semi-upright position beside the copilot and took over control of the ship. Cutting the power and feathering the last engine he put the aircraft in glide sufficiently steep to maintain his airspeed. Gradually losing altitude, he at last reached the English coast, whereupon he ordered all members of the crew to bail out as he knew they would all safely make land. But he received a message over the interphone system which led him to believe 1 of the crewmembers was unable to jump due to injuries; so he made the decision to ditch the ship in the channel, thereby giving this man a chance for life. To add further to the danger of ditching the ship in his crippled condition, there was a 500-pound bomb hung up in the bomb bay. Unable to climb into the seat vacated by the copilot, since his foot, hanging on to his leg by a few tendons, had become lodged behind the copilot's seat, he nevertheless made a successful ditching while lying on the floor using only aileron and elevators for control and the side window of the cockpit for visual reference. On coming to rest in the water the aircraft commenced to sink rapidly with Lt. Col. Vance pinned in the cockpit by the upper turret which had crashed in during the landing. As it was settling beneath the waves an explosion occurred which threw Lt. Col. Vance clear of the wreckage. After clinging to a piece of floating wreckage until he could muster enough strength to inflate his life vest he began searching for the crewmember whom he believed to be aboard. Failing to find anyone he began swimming and was found approximately 50 minutes later by an Air-Sea Rescue craft. By his extraordinary flying skill and gallant leadership, despite his grave injury, Lt. Col. Vance led his formation to a successful bombing of the assigned target and returned the crew to a point where they could bail out with safety.
His gallant and valorous decision to ditch the aircraft in order to give the crewmember he believed to be aboard a chance for life exemplifies the highest traditions of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Lt. Col. Leon R. Vance, Medal of Honor recipient. Vance Air Force Base, Okla., is named in his honor. (U.S. Air Force illustration/Mike Carabajal) [Via]
Leon Robert "Bob" Vance, Jr. was born on August 11, 1916 and died on July 26, 1944. Vance was considered an above-average student and a great athlete. He averaged a 94 percent in mathematics. Vance entered the United States Military Academy, West Point, on July 1, 1935, as a member of the Class of 1939, nicknamed later as the "Warrior Class" because they were destined to fight in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. He graduated June 12, 1939, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant of Infantry
After flight training, basic and advanced, in different flight schools, he earned his wings on June 21, 1940. Vance as a first lieutenant, Air Corps served as an instructor and commander the 49th School Squadron. He was promoted to captain on April 6 and major on July 17, 1941 and remained in command of his basic flight training squadrons Director of Flying. Vance was promoted to lieutenant colonel in September 1943, after little more than four years' service.
After transition training to the Consolidated B-24 Liberator, Vance was assigned in December 1943 to the 489th Bombardment Group at Wendover AAF, Utah, as Deputy Group Commander. In April 1944 the group was assigned to the Eighth Air Force. The group was assigned to the 95th Combat Bombardment Wing of the 2nd Bomb Division and based at RAF Halesworth. Vance led the group on its first combat mission, bombing the Luftwaffe airfield at Oldenburg, Germany, on May 30, 1944.
On his second mission, while leading the bomb group against enemy coastal guns on the eve of D-Day, Colonel Vance was severely wounded in action over Wimereaux, France, suffering a traumatic near-amputation of his right foot from enemy aircraft fire. Several weeks later, recovering from his wounds, Vance was flown by a C-54 transport aircraft back to the United States. It never arrived. On July 26, 1944, Vance was officially declared deceased, unrecovered in the North Atlantic. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
The original 489th was activated in 1943 and outfitted with B-24 bombers. It flew over Europe and was due to fly missions in the Pacific at the time the war ended. It was deactivated just two years later. According to the Dyess AFB Public Affairs Office, the reactivation of the 489th Bomb Group is part of a project aiming to fully integrate active duty Air Force, Air Force Reserve, and Air National Guard components.