Someone once said that "If you can pick up a book and read it thank a teacher. If you can read the book in English thank a soldier." Today I would like to thank the two men to the left for helping me read in English and not German. My paternal grandfather Reed Burleson fought at the Battle of the Bulge and received multiple medals, including the Purple Heart. My maternal grandfather Fred Cherry also fought on the battlefields of Europe, riding throughout France and Germany in his jeep that he nicknamed "John 3:16." Thanks to my mom, Mary Burleson, for the photographs. I am currently working on some background information on my grandfather Reed Burleson, particularly focusing on his landing in Normandy after the D-Day invasion and his movement into Belgium where Hitler's divisions of Panzer tanks turned back from their retreat and put up a fierce fight at the Battle of the Bulge. I pause to remember my grandfathers for their service to our country. I would like to also honor another man, a contemporary of both my grandfathers, a native of Enid, Oklahoma, and a graduate of Enid High School. His name is Leon Robert Vance.
Rachelle and I were in Normandy, France in September. We spent a day at Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery where over 10,000 Americans are buried France's soil. One cannot help but be deeply moved when thinking of all the soldiers who gave their lives in June 1944 as Americans joined Britains, Canadians, Australians and others as the combined Allied Forces invaded Europe to put an end to Hitler's despotism. A very compelling story, told in the exit lobby of the impressive American Cemetery and Memorial is that of Bob Vance of Enid, Oklahoma. Most Oklahomans do not know Bob Vance's heroic actions at Normandy, and that includes most people who live in Enid, Bob's hometown. Everyone has heard of Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Oklahoma, but few know the reason why the former Enid Army Air Corp base is now named after Bob Vance. This Veteran's Day of 11/11/11/ is posted in tribute to my grandfathers, Bob Vance and other American soldiers like just like them.
Leon Robert (Bob) Vance, Jr. was born in Enid, Oklahoma, on August 11, 1916. His father was the principle at Enid's Longfellow Middle School, and his mother was an Enid educator as well. Bob graduated from Enid High School in 1933. He had been an exceptional athlete and an honors student in high school, and after graduation Bob entered the University of Oklahoma and the ROTC program at OU. Bob attended the university for his freshman and sophomore years before transferring to the West Point Military Academy in 1935. Bob would spend four additional years at the Academy, graduating from West Point in 1939, part of the class that Newsweek magazine called in 1999 The Warrior Class because the graduates would go on to fight in WW II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Bob was training to become a pilot for the Army Air Corp (now called the Air Force). While at West Point he met a native New Yorker, Georgette Brown, and the day after his West Point graduation, Bob and Georgette were married at the Academy's chapel.
For the next five years Lieutenant Robert Vance would first be trained, and then train, Army Air Force pilots at various Air Force bases around the United States. He would sometimes wonder if the war would be over before he actually saw combat, but his expertise as a pilot trainer was both needed and rewarded. By 1944 he had become a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Air Force. One of Bob's best friends in the Army Air Corp, having met him early in his pilot training at San Angelo, Texas, was Lieutenant Horace S. Carswell. Carswell was a native Texan who had earned his wings in November 1938 and was subsequently assigned as an instructor in the Air Corp, just like Lieutenant Vance. The Vance and Carswell couples became fast friends. Both Vance and Carswell would eventually leave the Air Corp training program to fly combat in B-24 bombers. Both would arrive in different theaters of combat in April of 1944. Both would earn the Medal of Honor within six months of each other. Both would have Air Force bases named after them - Vance Air Force Base and Carswell Air Force Base.
Bob Vance's Actions at Normandy which Led to His Medal of Honor
Lieutenant Colonel Bob Vance kissed his wife and two year old daughter Sharon good bye and left for England in April of 1944. For two months he trained with other men in a B-24 bomber, preparing for D-Day and the invasion of Europe. Vance's combat mission would be to fly with a crew in a bomber named the Missouri Sue and drop bombs on the German lines located on the shores of France twenty four hours before invasion, softening the beach for the infantry landings that would arrive a few hours later. Early on June 5, 1944, the Missouri Sue took off from England for the bombing mission. The bombs failed to release on the first run over the target, so Lieutenant Colonel Vance ordered a 360 degree turn for a second pass. Somewhere in the process of the second bomb run Missouri Sue was repeatedly hit by German flak, killing the pilot, wounding several members of the crew, and nearly severing Bob Vance's right foot, pinning him to the floor of the plane. The crew fought to complete the mission and then turned the plane toward home. Three of the bomber's engines eventually shut down and the fourth had to be shut down to prevent a stall. The damaged plane showered gasoline throughout the trip back across the channel to England. The bomb bay doors remained open with an armed 500-pound bomb dangling precariously there from. Vance was the command pilot of the craft, and as the plane continued its forced descent from 10,000 feet, he ordered that all the crew parachute to safety. Unwilling to have the plane crash into the English landscape, particularly with a 500 pound bomb dangling from the bomb bay, Vance, still pinned to the floor with his severed foot, piloted the gliding plane back into the English channel where it crashed into the water. The force of the crash propelled Bob Vance from the plane and knocked him unconscious. Somehow he managed to float to the surface where he was eventually rescued. Unfortunately, Bob's career as a pilot was over. His right foot had been severed. The surviving ten men credited the actions of Bob Vance for their safe parachute landing on English land.
Vance's Recuperation and Tragic Death
Vance recuperated in England from his injuries for the next eight weeks. He wrote letters home describing to his wife and family the injuries he sustained, urging them not to worry, and that as soon as he was able, he would be on a medical flight home. His letters were initially filled with excitment and enthusiasm for Operation Overlord (the invasion of Europe), and he expressed pride for what his bombing crew had done in preparation for the landing. His spirits lowered, however, when he left the hospital for the first time, hobbling on his crutches in the streets of London, and was met by a small boy who looked him over, saw his missing foot and said, "Don't worry Yank, you won't miss it!" The emotional impact of realizing he would never fly again was enormous, and his depression increased when word came that his father had been killed in an aircraft accident.
The only thing that kept him going during his eight weeks of recovery was the knowledge that he would soon see his wife and small child. He made plans to leave England on a medical evacuation plane. Just before he left he discovered he had been nominated for the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions. On July 26, 1944 Vance joined other wounded soldiers as they boarded a transport plane for the trip back to America. His wife Georgette and Sharon, anxiously anticipated their loved one's arrival. Sharon, just over two years old, didn't understand much, but she could say, "Daddy's coming home!"
Bob Vance never made it. Somewhere between Newfoundland and Iceland the plane went down. The plane has never been discovered, nor has Bob Vance's body ever been recovered. Georgette received this telegram, informing her that her husband was missing in action. The family was stricken with grief. Just weeks later, the government told Georgette that her husband had been bestowed the Medal of Honor. She requested that offical ceremony be delayed until her daughter, Sharon, was old enough to comprehend what her father had done. Two years later, in 1946, Sharon Vance, Bob's four year old daughter, officially received on behalf of the Vance family the Medal of Honor which the U.S. government had bestowed upon her father, the highest recognition given American soldiers. Later, the Army Air Base in Enid would be renamed Vance Air Force Base.
On this Veteran's Day, at 11:11 a.m. 11/11/11, I say thank you to Bob Vance, my grandfathers, and others like them that when I read books, I read them in English.
In His Grace,