By Don Allen
As a teacher of American History in my home state of Massachusetts I have always tried to balance the teaching of the events (Civil War, WWI, WWII etc) with a remembrance of the individuals involved in those events. Knowing the reasons for those wars is of course incredibly important, and understanding the background of political events, social upheaval, and major players such as Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR are necessary, and ones that I go through quite extensively.
Often lost however in the battles and out-sized personalities of the time are the individuals, the soldiers, nurses and pilots of those events. These men and women are the backbone of every battle, every skirmish that takes place, without which freedom can’t be defended from the tyranny of the Hitlers and Stalins of the world. In order to get my students to remember these astounding individuals, I do an exercise where I print out Medal of Honor recipient citations for those who died after performing heroic actions, taken from different conflicts, and I have each of them read one aloud. I do this not to be morbid, but to teach them that the cost of war is not just money, that “casualties” isn’t just a number, and that “# of soldiers killed” means real people died. This is not “anti-war” propaganda, it is not a statement on whether or not war is “right” or “wrong”. It is to remember those who were willing to give, and for those who gave, the ultimate sacrifice for their country. The 2nd Air Division USAAF Memorial Library was designed for the same purpose. I invite you to visit our website (www.2ndair.org.uk) or come in and learn about these heroes of World War II, to look through our Roll of Honor and remember.
In that spirit, I give to you the Medal of Honor citation of Lt. Colonel Leon Robert Vance Jr., 489th BG, 2nd Air Division, 8th Air Force, who died tragically in a plane crash returning home two months after his heroic actions (taken directly from the official Congressional Medal of Honor page at www.cmohs.org/recipient-detail/3033/vance-leon-r-jr.php):
‘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.’
The recommendation that he be awarded the Medal of Honor was confirmed in orders on January 4, 1945, but his widow requested that the awards ceremony be delayed until the medal could be presented to their daughter. On October 11, 1946, Major General James P. Hodges, commander of the 2nd Bomb Division when Vance was assigned to it, made the presentation to Sharon Vance at Enid Army Air Base.
Lt Col. Vance is commemorated on the “Wall of the Missing” at the Cambridge American Cemetery.
Thank you, Lt. Col. Vance.