Monday, February 22, 2016

“Above all the grace and the gifts that Christ gives to his beloved is that of overcoming self.”*


This post is the seventh installment in a series of posts on Medal of Honor Recipients from the US Air Force and its predecessor organizations.  Today’s post piqued my interest as it was one in which there were two MOH’s awarded for the same action.  I have previously posted on another situation that this happened but I believe this is a rare occurrence.  Another similarity with a previous post is that this mission was our recipients' second mission, as was the case in my previous post discussing Lt Col Vance. 

The Air Force has long postulated that the first 10 missions are the hardest to survive and that if one does survive them, their chances of long term survival are much better, although there is a down turn in survival probability in the last few missions.  Red Flag and similar exercises were developed to help improve those odds.

I can hear Sarge firing up his email machine telling me to get ON with it, juvat! So, I shall.

Lt Walter Truemper and SSgt Archibald Mathies received the Medal of Honor for actions that occurred on February 20th 1944 on an 8th Air Force attack on enemy installations in Leipzig Germany. 
2Lt Walter Truemper
Source


SSgt Archie Mathies
Source

 February 20th -25th was known as “Big Week” and was an attempt by the Allies to engage the Luftwaffe in a decisive battle by concentrating attacks on the German Aircraft industry.  The P-51 had been introduced to the theater and was now present in sufficient numbers and with sufficient range to provide protection to the bomber forces who, up to this point, had to rely primarily, and to a large part unsuccessfully, on the defensive fire from their own machine guns.  The strategy therefore was to try to force the Luftwaffe to come up and face the fighter protection, or risk the destruction of their Air Force on the ground.


US Air Force Photo

But the Luftwaffe did come up and fight.

In the 6 days of “Big Week”, 8th Air Force flew more than 3000 sorties and lost 97 B-17s, 40 B-24s and had another 20 scrapped due to damage.  With 10 men, at a minimum, in each of those bombers, that’s a lot of people.


Lt Truemper is Front Row, second from right.  SSgt Mathies is back row, far left.
Source


Lt Truemper, the navigator, and SSgt Mathies, the ball turret gunner, were on board one of those planes named Ten Horsepower.  Headed in to the target, their formation is attacked by Me-109s and the bombardier notices a Me-109 attacking from 2 o’clock high.  He calls out a warning and begins firing his nose gun.  Feeling rounds impact the aircraft, he unstraps and crawls back to the cockpit.
I thought I had a picture of the crawlspace between the cockpit and the nose, I didn't, but I was standing in it when I took this picture.
 


The co-pilot is obviously dead, a 20mm shell having hit him in the head decapitating him.
  
The Pilot is bathed in blood and his body is leaning forward against the controls and forcing the plane into a spiraling dive.  The bombardier crawls back to his position and attempts to contact any other members of the crew, but no one answers.  

He pulls the bail out alarm, opens the bomb bay and jettisons the bombs, thereby allowing use of the bomb bay for bailout if needed.  He then bails out.

No one else has bailed out yet.  

The intercom is out, and the aircraft’s dive is increasing as are the g forces.  The top turret gunner, manages to move into the cockpit and straddling the passageway to the nose, levers the two pilot’s bodies off of the yoke.  He then manages to get the aircraft out of the dive and headed back to England.  
Bombardier's position from the Navigators

He has no idea if anyone else is alive or on the aircraft. 

 Meanwhile with the g’s back to normal, SSgt Mathies is able to extricate himself from the ball turret and makes his way to the cockpit, as does Lt Truemper from the nose section.
SSgt Mathies Battle Station

They manage to get the Co-Pilot’s body out of his seat and Lt Truemper climbs in.

This is February in Europe.  They’re at 5000’ headed towards the North Sea.  The cockpit has been shattered and there’s a 150mph breeze blowing in.  

It is cold. 

 Lt Truemper, SSgt Mathies and Sgt Moore, the top turret gunner, rotate flying the aircraft.  There is considerable damage to the flight controls, so simply flying the aircraft requires quite a bit of strength which the cold and wind quickly sap.

Still feet dry over Europe, they encounter a pair of FW-190s.  The fighters attack and further damage the bomber.  

Lt Truemper elects to descend into the cloud deck below him to defend themselves. 

Let’s discuss this.  He is not a pilot.  He has not flown an aircraft before, much less on instruments.  The aircraft has been damaged and there is no way to determine if the instruments are reliable. 

Gutsy call.  On one hand,  possible loss of control with bailout difficult if not impossible. On the other hand, probable destruction from enemy aircraft.


He descends into the overcast, and safely continues his descent until he breaks out below at about 1500’.  

As they cross the channel, other members of the crew check in and the radioman reports that the pilot, although seriously injured, is still alive.  However, he will not survive a bailout.  

They call the nearest base, which happens to be RAF, requesting permission to land.  Upon finding out that the pilot and co-pilot are incapacitated, permission is denied.

A tough call, but understandable.  If that base were recovering aircraft from "Big Week" attacks, disruption of that procedure may cause even further casualties.  

Lt Truemper and crew decide to head back to their home base.  SSgt Mathies is flying at this point and sets up for the approach, as he approaches the overrun, he realizes he’s going too fast and won’t get it down or stopped on the runway, so he goes around.

SSgt Mathies is also not a pilot nor has he flown an airplane before.  Going around in a damaged aircraft is not for the faint of heart. However, he is successful.

On the ground, the group commander and squadron commander race to a B-17 and take off, intending to provide assistance as well as check the aircraft for any unknown conditions.  


Source


Unfortunately, the two bombers cannot communicate except by relay through the control tower.  Additionally, formation flying is made more difficult by the flight control damage as well as the increasing fatigue of the rotating shift of crew flying the aircraft.

Lt Truemper and SSgt Mathies decide to climb and fly back over the field and let the rest of the crew bail out.

Now alone, with the pilot still alive, they make an additional attempt to land but again fail to control their approach speed.  

They go around again.  

At this point, the Group Commander advises them to point toward the sea and bail out.

And here’s where it gets dusty.

The two men say they will do that only if ordered to.

They attempt one more approach, but miss the approach and as they attempt to go around, they lose control and hit the ground.  One person survived the crash, the pilot. However, he died from his injuries later in the hospital.


Source



Lt. Truemper’s Citation

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty in action against the enemy in connection with a bombing mission over enemy-occupied Europe on 20 February 1944. The aircraft on which 2d Lt. Truemper was serving as navigator was attacked by a squadron of enemy fighters with the result that the copilot was killed outright, the pilot wounded and rendered unconscious, the radio operator wounded and the plane severely damaged Nevertheless, 2d Lt. Truemper and other members of the crew managed to right the plane and fly it back to their home station, where they contacted the control tower and reported the situation. 2d Lt. Truemper and the engineer volunteered to attempt to land the plane. Other members of the crew were ordered to jump, leaving 2d Lt. Truemper and the engineer aboard. After observing the distressed aircraft from another plane, 2d Lt. Truemper's commanding officer decided the damaged plane could not be landed by the inexperienced crew and ordered them to abandon it and parachute to safety. Demonstrating unsurpassed courage and heroism, 2d Lt. Truemper and the engineer replied that the pilot was still alive but could not be moved and that they would not desert him. They were then told to attempt a landing. After 2 unsuccessful efforts their plane crashed into an open field in a third attempt to land. 2d Lt. Truemper, the engineer, and the wounded pilot were killed.

SSgt Mathies’ Citation.

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty in action against the enemy in connection with a bombing mission over enemy-occupied Europe on 20 February 1944. The aircraft on which Sgt. Mathies was serving as engineer and ball turret gunner was attacked by a squadron of enemy fighters with the result that the copilot was killed outright, the pilot wounded and rendered unconscious, the radio operator wounded and the plane severely damaged. Nevertheless, Sgt. Mathies and other members of the crew managed to right the plane and fly it back to their home station, where they contacted the control tower and reported the situation. Sgt. Mathies and the navigator volunteered to attempt to land the plane. Other members of the crew were ordered to jump, leaving Sgt. Mathies and the navigator aboard. After observing the distressed aircraft from another plane, Sgt. Mathies' commanding officer decided the damaged plane could not be landed by the inexperienced crew and ordered them to abandon it and parachute to safety. Demonstrating unsurpassed courage and heroism, Sgt. Mathies and the navigator replied that the pilot was still alive but could not be moved and they would not desert him. They were then told to attempt a landing. After two unsuccessful efforts, the plane crashed into an open field in a third attempt to land. Sgt. Mathies, the navigator, and the wounded pilot were killed.

Warriors!



*Francis of Assisi.  I try to find a quotation that I think is appropriate for these stories.  Came up with two for this one.  My back up was:

" In the military, you learn the essence of people. You see so many examples of self-sacrifice and moral courage. In the rest of life, you don't get that many opportunities to be sure of your friends."

Adam Driver

I confess, I had no clue who Adam Driver is.  On googling him, found out he's an actor (ptui!).  However, he was also a Marine, so I'll give him credit.  I've found that statement to be profoundly accurate.

12 comments:

  1. When I was a kid, I got ensnared by the Military Book Club. One of my "purchases" was a history of the B17. This story was in it. I remembered Sgt Mathies' face when I saw it. As I remember, there is a memorial to Sgt. Mathies' in his hometown that reads "Greater love hath no man than this, to lay down his life for his friends."

    My heroes have always been fighters. And he was one of each.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Evidently, there are several. The source of all knowledge lists these

      One of the Temporary Lodging units at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling is named in his honor.

      The Airman Leadership School at RAF Feltwell, UK is named in his honor.

      The Noncommissioned Officer Academy at Keesler AFB, MS is named in his honor.

      The bridge on Truemper Drive crossing Military Highway at Lackland Air Force Base, TX is named in his honor.

      The USCIS Dallas District Office is named in his honor.

      The Mathies Coal Company in Pittsburgh, PA was named in his honor.

      Archibald Mathies' Medal of Honor is on display at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana.

      Delete
  2. Amazing story. How these non-pilots managed to nurse this shot up bird back to England is something else. To get so close...

    They stayed with their pilot rather than save themselves.

    Greater love indeed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My primary source for this post, spent quite a bit of time talking about Lt Nelson, the pilot. Evidently, he was quite a leader who had molded the crew into a coherent team. Leadership has results, as does lack thereof. I had the great good fortune to fly with a lot of the former, but also a few of the latter. I can see how Lt Nelson's crew would have made the choices they did.

      Delete
  3. Your crew is family, and you don't abandon family. Good Men, safe in the arms of God.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Greater love is right... And God cashed their checks...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, well...he does that for all of us. One hopes the check is worth as much as these two were.

      Delete
  5. What the Sarge said - I think at some point in that flight they decided a little thing like dying wouldn't change their flight or their loyalty.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, that's why that second quote resonated with me. There were people in my squadron I knew with absolute certainty I could rely on them no matter what. I hope there were people that felt the same about me. That bond has been rarely encountered since I returned to civilian life. I miss that.

      Delete
  6. I remember reading this story in my youth as well. One of Ed Jablonsky's books I think. Probably misspelled that.

    I used to wonder (still do to a large extent) how those men could face such missions and such odds, how they could overcome their fear. Later I learned that you can't do it if you think you're the center of the universe, that there has to be something much bigger than your own paltry existence to hang your hat on. I can remember being so terrified a couple of times that I would have said screw this, I quit. But "Ship, Shipmate, Self" wouldn't allow for that. And those missions were milk and girl scout cookies compared to what WWII crews faced!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. All good points and questions I've asked myself, with no good answers.

      Delete

Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)