Lt. Col. Leon Vance 489th BG – Medal of Honour

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Leon Vance*

The story of Leon Vance is one of  the saddest stories to emerge from the Second World War. He was a young American, who through his bravery and dedication, saved the lives of his colleagues and prevented their heavily striken aircraft from crashing into populated areas of southern England. Following a mission over France, his was very severely injured, but miraculously fought on.

Leon Robert Vance, Jr. known as ‘Bob’ to his family and friends, was born in Enid, Oklahoma, on August 11th, 1916. He graduated from high school in 1933 after receiving many honours and being singled out as a high performing athlete. He went on, after University, to the prestigious Training College at West Point in 1935, staying until his graduation four years later in 1939. It was here, at West Point, he would meet and marry his wife Georgette Brown. He and Georgette would later have a daughter, after whom Vance would name his own aircraft ‘The Sharon D’.

Vance would become an aircrew instructor, and would have various postings around the United States. He became great friends with a Texan, Lieutenant Horace S. Carswell, with whom he would leave the Air Corps training program to fly combat missions in B-24 Liberators. They became great friends but would go on to fight in different theatres.

Prior to receiving his posting, Vance undertook training on Consolidated B-24s. Then, in October 1943, as a Lieutenant Colonel, he was posted to Europe with the newly formed 489th Bombardment Group (Heavy), as the Deputy Group Commander. One of the last groups to be assigned to the european theatre, they formed part of the 95th Combat Bombardment Wing (2nd Bomb Division),  Eighth Airforce, and were sent to RAF Halesworth (RAF Holton) designated Station 365 by the USAAF.

The group left their initial base at Wendover Field, Utah in April / May 1944 and their first mission would be that same month on May 30th, 1944, as part of a combined attack on communication sites, rail yards and airfields. A total of 364 B-24s were to attack the Luftwaffe bases at Oldenburg, Rotenburg and Zwischenahn, along with other targets of opportunity far to the north in the German homeland. With only 1 aircraft lost and 38 damaged, it was considered a success and a good start to the 489th’s campaign.

As the build up to Normandy developed, Vance and the 489th would be assigned to bombing targets in northern France in support of the Normandy invasion about to take place further to the south. An area the unit would concentrate on, prior to the Allied beach invasion on June 6th that year.

The day before D-day, the 489th would fly to Wimereaux, in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France. This would be Leon Vance’s final mission.

B-24H Liberator of the 489thBG, RAF Halesworth*2

The group, (Mission 392),  consisted of 423 B-17s and 203 B-24s and were to hit German coastal defenses including: Le Havre, Caen, Boulogne and Cherbourg areas as precursors to the Normandy invasion. Some 127 P-47s and 245 P-51s would support the attacks. The 489th would assemble at 22,500 feet on the morning of June 5th, proceed to the south of Wimereaux and fly over dropping their payload then return to England. On the run in to the target, Vance was stationed behind the pilot and copilot.  The lead plane encountered a problem and bombs failed to jettison. Vance ordered a second run, and it was on this run that his plane, Missouri Sue, took several devastating hits.

Four of the crew members, including the pilot were killed and Vance himself was severely injured. His foot became lodged in the metal work behind the co-pilots seat. There were frantic calls over the intercom and the situation looked bad for those remaining on board. To further exacerbate the problems, one of the 500lb bombs had remained inside the bomb bay armed and in a deadly state, three of the four engines were disabled, and fuel spewed from ruptured lines inside the fuselage.

Losing height rapidly, the co-pilot put the aircraft into a dive to increase airspeed. The radio operator, placed a makeshift tourniquet around Vance’s leg, and the fourth engine was feathered.  They would then glide toward the English coast.

The aircraft was too damaged to control safely, so once over english soil, Vance ordered those who could, to bail out. He then turned the aircraft himself out to the English Channel to attempt a belly landing on the water. A dangerous operation in any aircraft, let alone one with an armed bomb and no power.

Still trapped by the remains of his foot, laying on the floor and using only aileron and elevators, he ensured the remaining crew left before the aircraft struck the sea. The impact caused the upper turret to collapse, effectively trapping Vance inside the cockpit. By sheer luck, an explosion occurred that threw Vance out of the sinking wreckage,  his foot now severed.  He remained in the sea searching for whom he believed to be the radio operator, until picked up by the RAF’s Air Sea Rescue units.

Vance was alive, but severely injured. He would spend a number of weeks, recuperating in hospital, writing home and gradually regaining his strength. Disappointed that his flying career was over, he looked forward to seeing his wife and young child once more. However, on a recuperation trip to London, Vance met a young boy, who innocently, and without thought, told him he wouldn’t miss his foot. The emotional, impact of this comment was devastating to Vance and he fell into depression. Then, news of his father’s death pushed him down even further.

Eventually, on July 26th, 1944 Vance was given the all clear to return home and he joined other wounded troops on-board a C-54, bound for the US. It was never to arrive there.

The aircraft disappeared somewhere between Iceland and Newfoundland. It has never been found nor has the body of Leon Vance or any of the others on board that day. Vance’s recommendations for the Medal of Honour came through in the following  January (4th), but at the request of his wife, was delayed until October 11th 1946, so his daughter could be presented the medal in her father’s name.

The citation for Leon Vance reads:

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 crew members 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 crew member 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 crew member he believed to be aboard a chance for life exemplifies the highest traditions of the U.S. Armed Forces”*1

Leon Vance’s actions would be remembered. His local base in Oklahoma was renamed ‘Vance Air Force Base’ on July 9th, 1949. The gate at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma was also later named after him on May 9th, 1997, and his name appears on the ‘Wall of the Missing’ at Madingley American War Cemetery in Cambridge, England.

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The Wall of the Missing, on Which Leon Vance’s Name Appears.

Leon Robert Vance, Jr. (August 11th, 1916 – July 26th, 1944)

For other personal tales, click here.

references

* Photo public domain ia Wikipedia

*1 “Medal of Honor recipients – World War II”.

*2 Photo Public Domain via Wikipedia.

5,127 Missing Americans are Honoured Here

There are many excellent and fitting memorials around the country dedicated to the RAF and USAAF personnel. Many of these are relatively new and make for terrific places to sit, remember and give thanks to the young men and women who gave so much.

I have visited a few myself and will feature them here as I get round them. If you have been to one and would like to write a piece for us, please feel free to contact us, and we can make the necessary arrangements to post it here. We would love your contribution.

My first is the American Cemetery at Madingley.

Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial – Madingley

Not far from Cambridge, to the west of the M11, is the American Cemetery and Memorial at Madingley.

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A Panoramic View Across Madingley Cemetery

Madingley is the only American Military Cemetery in the United Kingdom, dedicated solely to the Second World War. It covers an area of some 30 acres and the land it uses was donated by Cambridge University. The site was dedicated on July 16th 1956. It is operated and maintained solely by the American Battle Monuments Commission, who oversee 24 cemeteries and 25 memorials across 15 different countries.

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One of the 3,812 Headstones

The cemetery has become a symbol of not only the  sacrifice of those held within its walls but the 3 million Americans who were stationed here during Word War II and the continuing alliance between the United Kingdom and the United States in times of conflict.

Within the cemetery stand 3,812 headstones, 3,732 Latin crosses, and 80 Stars of David. The stones are laid out in a fan, each row like a ripple in a pool, with the origin at a flagpole, from which the entire site and surrounding countryside can be seen. Around the base of the flag pole are the words from  “In Flanders Fields“, a World War I poem written by John McCrae, which reads: “To you from failing hands, we throw the torch – be yours to hold it high“. Every night, as the flag is lowered, ‘Taps’ is played on a bugle to signify the end of the military day and lights out – the time to sleep.

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The Plaque Dedicated to the Crew of the 577th BS

Next to this are two buildings. Firstly, the visitors’ centre, where there is a place to sit and staff who will willingly search the Commission’s online database for you. On the wall outside the centre is a plaque dedicated to the crew of a B-24 of the 577th BS, 392nd BG, that flew from RAF Wendling; who through their actions avoided crashing into civilian homes in Hertfordshire.  Next to this, is an exhibition hall, detailed through stories and pictures, the American involvement in the Second World War; with specific examples of some of those souls laid to rest at Madingley.

Along the southern side of the cemetery, is the wall holding the “Tablets of the Missing”. Here, the names, rank and service branch of 5,127 personnel, whose bodies were never found are located. Among them are those of Major Alton Glenn Miller and Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (Older brother of John F. Kennedy), to name but a few.

Along the top of the wall is the inscription:

The Americans, whose names here appear, were part of the price that free men for the second time in this century, have been forced to pay to defend human liberty and rights. All who shall hereafter live in freedom
will be here reminded that to these men, and their comrades,
we owe a debt to be paid with grateful remembrance of their sacrifice,
and the high resolve that the cause for which they died
shall live eternally.”

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The Wall With the Names of the Missing

The 427 foot long wall, has 4 statues representing: a soldier, an airman, sailor and coast guardsman, who stand guard over the inscriptions; the four statues were designed and created by the American sculptor, Wheeler Williams (November 30th, 1897 – August 12th, 1972). Wreaths are placed at the foot of the wall by American associations and serving units and makes for a moving experience.

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One of the Four Sculptures Depicting an Airman

At the other end of the wall is the memorial and chapel. The inscription on the memorial says “Grant Unto Them O Lord Eternal Rest” and 5 pillars each inscribed with one year of the war 1941 – 1945, that the Americans were involved. A brass inscription over the entrance reads “Into Thy Hands O Lord” and opens up to a detailed and incredible room. The roof depicts a formation of bombers and their escorts typical of those that flew from airfields in England, on their way to occupied Europe. On the wall a large map illustrates “The Mastery of the Atlantic – The Great Air Assault”,  in superb detail.  Designed by Herbert Gate, the American Artist, it is thirty feet long and eighteen feet high and shows the routes used to transport men and machinery from the United States. It also shows Naval operations and the bombing routes used during the great battles over Europe.

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The Memorial Building and Chapel

Outside the chapel, along the length of the ‘Tablets of the Missing’, are rectangular pools and rose beds, neatly laid out as they should be. Lined by trees, it makes a serene place to walk.

Madingley Cemetery is a moving yet peaceful place to sit and remember, to pay homage and to give thanks to the many young men and women who came from another country, to give up their lives in the name of freedom and democracy.

In the words of the original Chairman, General John J. Pershing, Commander of the American Expeditionary Force of the First World War:

“Time will not dim the Glory of Their Deeds”.

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The Atlantic Display Inside the Chapel

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The Rectangular Ponds in Front of ‘The Tablets of the Missing’

Madingley Cemetery can be visited freely, opening times and other details are available on their website here, from which many of the facts of this record have come.

The American Battles Monuments Commission also manages the Brookwood Cemetery in Woking, Surrey and their details can be found here.

The American Role of Honour can be seen here at St Pauls Cathedral, my thanks goes to wynnebook.wordpress.com for the valuable link.