Monday, February 8, 2016

Luck never gives; it only lends *

Luck plays a big role in a military career, especially if you’re in a combat related specialty.  It can be incredibly good luck making that post debrief beer taste just a little bit better, or OMG bad luck involving notifying next of kin.  The difference between the two outcomes is usually measured in milliseconds and inches.  As the General who spoke at my UPT graduation said, “Today, I’m issuing you two bags, One is marked “skill” and that one is mostly empty.  The second is marked “Luck”.  Hopefully it is full, but your job is to fill the Skill bag before you empty the Luck bag.”  Fortunately for me, my Luck Bag was very full.

Today’s post will be another in my series of exploring the stories of the 60 USAF (and predecessor organizations) Medal of Honor recipients.  I’m starting with the lesser known recipients.  Most fighter pilots can tell the stories of Bong, Rickenbacker, Luke, Day, Sijan and Thorsness.  Bomber pilots can probably do the same for folks like Castle and Carswell.  As an amateur historian (really amateur, not even close to Sarge caliber, amateur), it disappoints me that I didn’t recognize many of the names on the monument listing them at Lackland AFB. 

So, enough digression anyhoo.  


Today’s story is about Lt Col Leon Robert Vance.  Yes, for those of you from Oklahoma or who went through UPT at Vance AFB, that Vance.  Col Vance was a local boy, born and raised in Enid.  Son of a school principal, he did very well academically and was talented at sports, enough so to gain admission to West Point.  He graduated from there with the class of 39, “The Warrior Class”.  Commissioned as an Infantry Officer, he’s eventually selected for Pilot Training finally getting his wings in June of 1940. He serves as a flight instructor until February 1941 when he’s transferred to Goodfellow to assume command of a training squadron.  He’s promoted to Captain in April 1942 and Major in July 1942.  

Reading through the “source of all knowledge”, one might come to believe that he was “lucky” to be in the right place, a training squadron, at the right time, the beginning of a war, and that was the source of his rapid advancement.

That doesn’t appear to have been the case.  Thomas Jefferson said this about Luck, “I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”  It’s apparent the Col Vance worked very hard and was very talented, earning the respect of students, Instructors as well as the enlisted under his command.  He is promoted to Lt Col in September of 43. He is 27.

In any case, to quote my roommate at SAMS, “Excellence is its own punishment”, he has spent most of the war in a training role and wants to get assigned overseas.  I can relate to that, reporting to Army CGSC just 2 weeks before Saddam decided to vacation in Kuwait.  However, “Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it” is also a valid quote.  
In the early 80's, we deployed here for a Red Flag.  I lived in the same quonset hut as the Enola Gay crew.  

Finally, Col Vance is assigned to the 489th Bombardment Group at Wendover AAF Utah as the Deputy Group Commander.  The group moves overseas in April 1944 and Col Vance leads his first combat mission to bomb the Luftwaffe base at Oldenburg Germany on May 30th 1944.
The Colonel with his aircraft, named for his daughter.

His second mission will be on June 5th 1944.  On June 2nd, the group had launched a mission to Normandy that had turned back due to weather.  With the invasion imminent, the group decided to use a specially equipped B-24 as a pathfinder. 
His aircraft later in the war

 As the raid commander, Col Vance would ride in the lead aircraft, but because this was not his regular B-24, he would not be the pilot.  Normally, then, the raid commander would take the co-pilot’s spot, and the co-pilot would stand behind the pilot and co-pilot seats for the duration of the mission.  Col Vance elected to let the crew that had trained together operate as a team.  He took the observer position.  Leadership! What a concept.

The flight initially goes as planned but as they reach the release point, the bombs don’t release.  Since all aircraft on the raid would release when the lead did, none of the aircraft dropped.  Normal procedures were for there to only be one attack, and if the opportunity was missed, bombs would be dropped in the sea on RTB.  But this is the day before D-day.  Hitting the target was critical. 


Col Vance elects to re-attack.  As the force comes around again, the enemy now alerted, begins heavy and accurate AAA fire, and the Col Vance’s bomber is hit three times.  The first round wounds the radioman in the legs, immobilizing him.  At that point, the bomber is at the release point and 9 of the 10 bombs release.  Just as the bombardier says they hit the target, the second round hits on the left side of the aircraft.  Shrapnel kills the pilot.  A third round hits the cockpit and all but amputates Col Vance’s right foot. His leg is trapped in the wreckage
Between the co-pilot and Col Vance, they get the B-24 turned for home.  Three of the four engines are destroyed, and the last one is failing rapidly.  Col Vance manages to stretch far enough to shut off the engines and feather the props which allows the bomber to be in a controlled glide towards home.  They manage to get the aircraft back over England where the bail out bell is rung.  All manage to bail out, although there is confusion on the status of the radioman.  Additionally, the aircraft is leaking fuel and there is an armed bomb still on board.  Given this, Col Vance elects to stay behind and fly the aircraft to the Channel and attempt to ditch it.
Still trapped by his nearly amputated foot, Col Vance is stretched out virtually horizontal flying the aircraft by looking out a side window.  Somehow, he manages to ditch the aircraft successfully, which was no small matter.

As the plane begins to sink, Col Vance decides to release the dead pilot’s harness and as he does, there is a small explosion.  (Col Vance believed it was an oxygen bottle).  The explosion frees Col Vance’s foot and he is able to swim to the surface.  He manages to swim 3 miles towards shore in icy water with effectively one leg before being rescued by a British launch.  As he’s being pulled on board, he joked “Don’t forget to bring my foot in.”

This site, goes into much better detail on the story of this flight, and is well worth the time.  

Col Vance is obviously in need of medical attention and receives it.  His flying and fighting are also obviously over.  On July 26th 1944, he boards a C-54 for home.

Somewhere between Greenland and Newfoundland, contact with the transport was lost and it was never found.

Col Vance's 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.


*Swedish proverb.


  1. Those are the truly sad stories. To survive then die on the way home... Hand Salute!

    1. My thoughts exactly. The source I linked went into some detail about his recovery and told of his mental rebound. Fate was certainly cruel to him, but mostly his, family.

  2. To go through all that and then...

    Truly a warrior.

  3. So tragic- to be so deserving of a hero's welcome back home, but his luck back ran empty on his very last flight. I'm not sure we'll ever see MOH awardees from the air services anymore, as we're too risk averse or we'll pummel the enemy into oblivion using ASMs/GBUs/JDAMs and drones so that the risk is minimized. I guess that's a good thing though.

    1. An interesting comment and a terrible thing if it bears true. The unwilling to risk part anyhow.

    2. Some are risk averse, others know the score. I know of at least two Naval Aviators who flew into nasty weather to put warheads on foreheads when US troops were in the sh!t in the badlands of Afghanistan. CO wanted an investigation (there was some minor hail damage to the aircraft), CAG nixed that. The guys did what needed to be done, the more senior aviator understood that. The kids in the cockpit put it out there to help the guys on the ground. Some of the folks in uniform still get that.

    3. If history is any guide, the risk averse will get promoted and those that know the score will retire as Majors passed over 9 times for LC. Yes, we know someone like that. Top of the page, bottom row fourth from the left.

    4. Hear, hear.

      And then they all wonder why no one wants to stay in...

    5. Furthermore, (IMHO) the gentleman in question was one of the finest to ever strap on a Thud.

  4. I only meant that it's good in that our superior weapons and aircraft minimize the risk. There just isn't the Triple-A, flak, or SAM threat today, or we'll conduct SEAD until it's suppressed. There are plenty of aviators who will push the limits of themselves and their aircraft, risking both for troops in contact. That risk probably doesn't equal MOH-like effort, with DFCs or service crosses being the limit of that ROI.

    1. Okay, I reread your comment, now I get it.

      Minimizing risk through overwhelming firepower is a concept I support 100%!

    2. No, I understood that Tuna. And as far as it goes, I'm a firm believer that if a drone CAN do a mission well, then it should do the mission. However, it's also apparent that the other aspect of risk aversion (that of risk averse leadership) is a big problem in the military and especially the AF, and IMHO it's getting worse not better.

  5. The living MOH guys always seem a little bit surprised to find that people think what they did heroic. "Just doing my job, let me tell ya about a real hero." I imagine it's much the same for those who didn't survive.

    That luck thing, and the tragedy of surviving such incredible peril only to perish later in far less "heroic" circumstances. Kind of shows that there's a higher power and a higher plane, and that what is important in this existence isn't necessarily as important in that one. It's the story I tell myself anyway.

    Sometimes in the middle of the night I wonder about the "why" of luck. Why the lady stuck with me yet seemingly abandoned others. Why the "more deserving" sometimes perish and the "less deserving" survive. There's no way to know of course, so it's not worth spending a lot of time thinking about.

    I read somewhere about liberated POW's being flown home from Japan in a B-24. Some apparently were seated in the bomb bay, and somehow the bomb doors were opened, scattering a handful of malnourished stick men into the Pacific far below. They endured so much, only to...

    Thanks for doing this series Juvat. I don't think this kind of stuff is discussed and thought about as much as it once was. Maybe someone facing tough sledding will read and ponder and wonder what Col. Vance would have done in their own situation.

    1. I've met 3 recipients and all three personalities seemed to be "what's all the fuss about?" Maybe that humility is an aspect of heroism itself, part of the willingness to sacrifice self for others. That would be an interesting subject to research.

      I hadn't heard that about the POWs on the B-24. That would suck, especially if it was a switch error on somebody's part. Not sure I'd be able to live with that one.


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