Monday, April 2, 2018

Can Do *

Happy Easter, everyone!  Yes...I know. Easter was on April 1st and today is the second.  However, Easter lasts until the Lord ascends back to Heaven.  So...Happy Easter, everyone!  May you come to realize that he is walking beside you on your personal Road to Emmaus.
1877 painting by Robert Zund

As he always is.

Sermon over.  But...let me tell you a story of a group of men who most certainly had some divine intervention at a critical point in their lives.

During WWII in Europe, as the Allies were preparing the battlefield for the invasion of France, one of the key requirements was to have Air Superiority, if not Air Supremacy, over France.  The P-51s were starting to make a difference, but as a wise man once said, "The enemy gets a vote on the outcome."**

The Germans were avoiding the Escorts generally, or dragging them away from the Bombers with Decoys or making quick slashing attacks and departing .  So, in early 1944, the Allies decided to change tactics.  They decided to launch a campaign against the German Aircraft industry.  Aircraft factories, airfields, anything that the Luftwaffe would be forced to defend or risk defeat on the ground.

The code name for this was Operation Argument (which doesn't sing to me, where do they get these awful names from anyway?).  However, it was and is generally known as "Big Week".   These strikes would typically involve almost a thousand bombers and five to seven hundred fighters, and went round the clock with the RAF Bomber Command area bombing the target areas at night.  

Casualties on both sides were high.  The RAF lost 131 bombers, the USAAF lost 226 bombers and 28 fighters.  Considering that the bombers had a crew compliment of 10 and were flying over enemy territory that means the more than 2000 men were killed or captured and therefore lost to the war effort.  The Germans lost 355 Aircraft but most importantly (from the Allies point of view), lost 100 pilots.  

Losses for the Allies could be replaced, German losses however....
Lt Lawley is first on the left second row.

So, in the midst of this maelstrom, 1Lt William R. Lawley having completed the required 10 missions as a co-pilot and therefore is now an aircraft commander is about to take his crew and brand new, never been in combat, B-17G (#42-38109) named "Cabin in the Sky"  into combat.

The target for the mission was Liepzig Germany.  As the massive formation (1003 bombers) approaches Germany, Lt Lawley's aircraft is attacked and one of their engine is set afire.  As the pilots handle that problem another wave of German fighters attacks.  


20mm cannon fire (cannon shells explode on impact, machine gun bullets do not) hits the cockpit and instantly kills Lt Paul Murphy, the co-pilot ,and wounds Lt Lawley in the face and right arm.

Worse yet, Lt Murphy's body is wedged against the flight controls on Lt Lawleys right (injured) side.  The weight of the body is forcing the flight controls forward and causing the still fully loaded bomber to enter a near vertical dive.

Lt Lawley manages to get the body off the controls and recover the aircraft at 12000 feet.  As he does so, he notices that a second engine is on fire now.  He also notices a flight of FW-190s is circling the bomber preparing to attack.  

As they approach to finish him off, he makes an evasive turn and dives into the clouds where the fighters lose sight of him.  

As he starts to limp for home, still on fire, and with a full bomb load, he tells the bombardier to drop the bombs on any target of opportunity he sees.  Unfortunately the bomb rack is damaged.  The bombardier manages to manually release the bombs and lightens the load and reduces the danger of explosion.  Not eliminate merely reduces.

Lt Lawley is heading for home, but with battle damage and the lower altitude, he doesn't believe that the bomber will make it home before running out of fuel.  He orders the crew to bail out over France.  

At that point, he finds out that every one of the 9 surviving crew members is injured, two critically.  They will not survive a bailout.  

Lt Lawley said "Ok, I'm going to get us home then."

As they approached the coast, they are attacked once again, this time by ME-109s.  Lt Lawley manages to defend the bomber with the assistance of the gunners.  As the ME-109s depart, Lt Lawley passes out from lack of Blood.  

The Bombardier is quickly able to revive him and the manage to cross the Channel and eventually belly land on a Canadian Fighter Base just after they get Feet Dry in England.

All 9 crewman survived.

Lt Lawley recovers from his wounds and flies an additional 14 combat missions for the magic number 25.  He received the Medal of Honor for his actions on 20 February 1944 but  his is not the only Medal of Honor awarded for actions on this day.  Lt Truemper and Sergeant Mathies also received the award, albeit posthumously.

Lt Lawley served 30 years in the Air Force, retiring as a Colonel.  He passed away in 1999.

Col Lawley's Citation:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty, 20 February 1944, while serving as pilot of a B-17 aircraft on a heavy bombardment mission over enemy-occupied continental Europe. Coming off the target he was attacked by approximately 20 enemy fighters, shot out of formation, and his plane severely crippled. Eight crewmembers were wounded, the copilot was killed by a 20-mm. shell. One engine was on fire, the controls shot away, and 1st Lt. Lawley seriously and painfully wounded about the face. Forcing the copilot's body off the controls, he brought the plane out of a steep dive, flying with his left hand only. Blood covered the instruments and windshield and visibility was impossible. With a full bomb load the plane was difficult to maneuver and bombs could not be released because the racks were frozen. After the order to bail out had been given, 1 of the waist gunners informed the pilot that 2 crewmembers were so severely wounded that it would be impossible for them to bail out. With the fire in the engine spreading, the danger of an explosion was imminent. Because of the helpless condition of his wounded crewmembers 1st Lt. Lawley elected to remain with the ship and bring them to safety if it was humanly possible, giving the other crewmembers the option of bailing out. Enemy fighters again attacked but by using masterful evasive action he managed to lose them. One engine again caught on fire and was extinguished by skillful flying. 1st Lt. Lawley remained at his post, refusing first aid until he collapsed from sheer exhaustion caused by loss of blood, shock, and the energy he had expended in keeping control of his plane. He was revived by the bombardier and again took over the controls. Coming over the English coast 1 engine ran out of gasoline and had to be feathered. Another engine started to burn and continued to do so until a successful crash landing was made on a small fighter base. Through his heroism and exceptional flying skill, 1st Lt. Lawley rendered outstanding distinguished and valorous service to our Nation.
Rest in Peace, Warrior!


* Motto of the 305th Bombardment Group (Heavy) of which Lt Lawley and crew were members.  It fits.


** The actual quote is "Know the Enemy… The enemy gets to vote on the outcome." Sun Tzu


  1. Citation's words don't seem to adequately describe the magnitude of that awful day's actions concerning that aircraft and crew....the wording seems so simple and plain when the actions were not. It's good to be able to remember such men even so many years later. Thanks Juvat.

    1. Yeah, I was thinking along the same lines as to the tone of the Citation. Now that I'm more than halfway through this project, I've noticed some tonal differences. There's a very big difference between the Citations from WWI and WWII. There's also a big difference between 8AF and 15AF in WWII. 8AF tends to be more matter of fact, 15AF plays up the valor more. Maybe that's a function of 8th being the focus of the Air War and the perception that the other Theaters were of lesser import. Citations for Korea and Vietnam while more bureaucratic in verbiage tend to follow the 15AF model, in my opinion. Unpopular wars perhaps.

      Interesting thoughts for a Monday morning.

  2. Replies
    1. I believe so, also. Military folks don't put it all on the line for the flag or patriotism or Mom and apple pie. They do put their life on the line for their comrades. That defines honor for me.

      I would have liked to have met Col Lawley.

    2. Je m'attends à ce que ce soit le cas de la grande majorité de nos lecteurs.

  3. Thank you for making these fine Americans known to me.

    Thanks for the post.
    Paul L. Quandt

  4. As most here know, a topic near and dear to my heart. For those interested, here are links to a couple of historical sources. I may have posted them before, but I don't remember.

    Records of my dad's bomb group--

    Interactive searchable data base--

    1. Yes, you had posted them. I visit the American Air Museum site quite often and they were the source of several of the points made in this post. Thank You.

  5. I will second Paul L. Quandt's comment - thank you for writing about this. These men and their tales of heroism need to be told and remembered.

    1. I think so. When I started on this project, I had come across a monument on the Drill Field at Lackland AFB with the list of all 60 USAF (and its predecessors) MOH Recipient. Before seeing that monument, I thought I'd known virtually all of them, Bong, Thorsness, Day etc. I was wrong and figured I'd get a two-fer out of the research. I'd be smarter and I'd have a source of posting ideas for when, as Sarge says, "The Muse abandons me."

      Glad you enjoyed it.

  6. It was not so much a "Can Do" attitude, but a "Must Do" one. As in, "We must destroy the Nazis and the Japs."

    The Captain and his crew reflected both "Can Do" and "Must Do." And with great fortune won the day and returned to safety.

    It is something that some say was missing in Korea or Viet-Nam, but I disagree. Aircrew (and groundcrew) fought valiantly, both in the "Can Do" and the "Must Do" way, but with a different enemy. Yes, the Korean conflict was against a great enemy, which our flyers wrested great victories against the forces of evil, but a new evil was creeping into the theater. The enemy of 'limited' and 'controlled' war, that forced our people to sacrifice their lives against aimless objectives. And worse was Viet Nam, where our own politicians were at least as deadly to our flyboys as the socialist enemy. Yet, again, forced to bash their heads against the wall over unrealistic goals and with pre-ordained route packages that turned the skys into a shooting gallery against us, they prevailed in a "Can Do" and "Must Do" way that is truly inspirational, yet forgotten or even worse, vilified.

    From the days of WWI, flying against the best, Americans have achieved greatness unmatched in many ways. Goettler and Bleckley willingly sacrificing themselves in order to find the Lost Battalion (First and Second Battalions, 308th Infantry, in the Seventy-seventh Division) during the harrowing hell of the Argonne Forest, October 2 to 8, 1918) and did so in a way American airmen did before and after them, even to this day.

    To our fallen heroes, both in battle and from the eternal struggle of age, may God hold them especially close, and may the People of this great country continue to meet the examples given to us by our fallen betters.

  7. I've a fraternity brother from Orlando whose father was a B-17 Squadron CO in the ETO. He was KIA. I read part of Squadrons hist. on the net yrs ago but lost it when the bookmark service I was using (Magnolia) went TU. His name was Maj Landon C. Hendricks. I understand there is a book now out about his Squadron, but have been slow off the mark in contacting Lanny as to its title. However the snippets I did read on the net from the daily op rpts showed him to be the very kind of guy you'd want to fly with and serve under..

  8. Let me see what I can see.

    1. This may be better info

    2. This site helped find it.

  9. Thanks juvat-just ordered from Amazon..


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