Leon Vance

Leon Vance received the Congressional Medal of Honor due to his bravery in World War II.

On June 5, 1944, Vance was assigned to lead the 489th BG on a diversionary attack against German coastal defenses near Wimereaux, France, in the Pas-de-Calais, to support the anticipated D-Day landings. The group had lost six bombers on a mission to bomb Brétigny Airfield near Paris on June 2 (Vance did not participate), partly as a consequence of attempting to bomb visually in poor weather conditions. As a result, the lead aircraft of the 489th’s formation on June 5 was a Pathfinder Force (PFF) “Mickey” B-24 detached from the 44th Bomb Group’s 66th Bomb Squadron to enable the group to bomb through overcast using “blind bombing” tactics. Vance positioned himself on the bomber’s flight deck, standing behind the aircraft commander and co-pilot.

After an 0900 takeoff, the group assembled its formation and climbed to its assigned 22,500 ft (6,900 m) altitude for the short flight to the French coast. The group approached the target area from the south but the bombs of the lead aircraft failed to release, and as a result none of the group bombed. Vance decided to make a second pass over the target rather than jettison the bombs into the English Channel, but as the formation approached the target a second time, it came under intense anti-aircraft fire (“flak”). The lead B-24 immediately sustained heavy battle damage. It continued the bomb run, however, and toggled its ordnance, but was further damaged by multiple flak bursts. In all, four crewmen were wounded, three of the four engines were disabled, and fuel lines ruptured in the fuselage. In addition, one of the aircraft’s bombs again failed to release. Immediately after bomb release, shrapnel from a final burst killed the aircraft commander and wounded Vance, nearly severing his right foot, which became wedged in cockpit framework behind the copilot’s seat. In the chaos that followed, comments on the interphone led Vance to believe that the crew’s radio operator, wounded in the legs, was too seriously injured to be evacuated.

The B-24 lost altitude rapidly after the pilot was killed, but the wounded copilot regained controlled flight, preventing a stall by putting it into a steep glide to maintain airspeed. Despite shock from his own wound, Vance was able to assist the copilot in “feathering” the propellers, shutting down the over-strained fourth engine, and optimizing the glide of the crippled aircraft. The crew’s “Mickey” operator, 2nd Lt. Bernard W. Bail, tried to dislodge Vance’s pinned foot and applied a makeshift tourniquet.

When the B-24 reached the English coast, it was too damaged to land safely. Vance ordered the crew to “bail out,” and after most had complied, took the controls and turned the aircraft back over the channel, where the remainder parachuted into the sea. He decided to attempt a water landing in the belief that the injured radio operator was still on the aircraft, even though B-24s were notoriously ill-suited for “ditching.” From a semi-prone position over the power plant controls island between the crew seats, Vance flew the bomber mainly by use of ailerons and elevators, keeping a visual reference through the side window of the cockpit. Although the Liberator survived the ditching largely intact, its dorsal gun turret collapsed and pinned Vance inside the flooded cockpit as the bomber sank. An explosion blew him clear of the wreckage, however, and he was eventually able to inflate his Mae West. After searching for the radio operator, Vance swam towards shore. He was finally picked up by an RAF Air-Sea Rescue launch after fifty minutes.