Saturday, June 06, 2015

D-Day, Normandy, and Saying "Thanks" to Soldiers

Today is June 6, 2015, the 71st anniversary of D-Day. I repost this article as my way of saying "Thanks" to the men and women who've fought for our freedom from tyranny. 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 (2011). 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 71st anniversary of D-Day, I say thank you to Bob Vance, my grandfathers, and others like them because when I read books, I read them in English.

In His Grace,

Wade Burleson


Gordon said...

From my home in Torquay, South Devon I can see ,right now, some of the slipways/boat ramps used as starting points for the American forces destined for the Utah and Omaha landing in France. The troops were given our area to prepare for the invasion, and they became endeared to the local population through their kindness, generosity and courtesy. They attracted a lot of attention because they were much more exciting and interesting than our girls had ever known before! So sad that many good young lives were lost in that dreadful war.

Ramesh said...

I have come to believe world war 2 could have been avoided by following saner economic policies. So much sacrifices for wrong policies!

NYT > Weimar on the Aegean

Rex Ray said...

The story of Bob Vance is very sad and tragic. To escape death so many times only to die going home…

Your grandfather’s war experiences sound like my father’s who landed 3 days after D-Day. General Patton wrote: “There has never been such a superb fighting organization as the 4th Armored Division in the history of warfare.”

My father was a chaplain in the 4th and stayed on the front till the war ended despite the Head Chaplain ordering chaplains to stay 50 miles behind the front. My father told him he took his orders from God.

Catholic soldiers complained they had no Catholic chaplain, and attended my father’s Sunday services. They tried many tricks to remove my father…the first was promotion to a Major which would keep him off the front. He turned it down. They even forged Patton’s name on an order. That got them in a lot of trouble.

When the war ended they were out for revenge and tried to court-marshal him on lies and tricks. On the ‘point system’, he should have been home first, but they had him in ‘house-arrest’ for nine months. We kept asking mother when was daddy coming home. Finally, word leaked out what was going on and the ‘revenge guys’ paid a price.

On Veteran’s Day in Grande Prairie, TX, I heard a speech about my father’s achievements and received a flag in his honor due to a story that was circulated. This is the story:

Rex Ray said...

By Hez Ray and Rex Ray whose parents taught school in Germany in 1948.
We met this little girl when we were 16, but we didn’t know this story.
Our father was a Chaplain in Patton’s 4th Armored Division that landed three days after D-day. He stayed on the front until the war ended. The first soldier to die was in his arms saying, “Yesterday, I was so scared I asked Jesus to save me. He stepped into my heart and I was so happy I thought I’d live forever. Tell my mother I’ll meet her in heaven.” His mother replied, “You’ll never know what your letter meant to us.”
Friends called him ‘Moss Face” because he’d been in WW I. Regardless of his age, he was first in the obstacle course and never lost in wrestling. His medals, including the Bronze Star, showed he was accustomed going beyond the call of duty.
The walled city of Rothenburg, Germany dates back to the Middle Ages with its castles, moats, and watchtowers. In 1634, war and the Black Death stopped Rothenburg from growing which preserved its 17th century state. Today there are millions of visitors each year. In 1945, Rothenburg had a population of about 9,000. The order not to shell the town was unnecessary because the Germans surrendered without firing a shot. The 4th Armored was stationed there after the war ended.
As the days passed, he and others made friends by playing soccer with children. It wasn’t long before the people and soldiers became friends. One little girl about five was especially drawn to him. Her smiling face, blond hair, and good cheer made Monika Beyer everyone’s friend. She was the youngest of her family of several children. But nearly every day she troubled him by asking, “When is my daddy coming home?”
Her father, John Beyer, was the town’s best doctor. In 1942, he was in the battle at Stalingrad which started the end for Hitler. Germans had 85% casualties of a million men. 90,000 became POWs, but because of food shortage and harsh treatment only 5,000 survived which increased casualties to 99%. The chance of Beyer being alive was not good.
He always answered Monika’s question: “Your daddy is coming home real soon. You will see him in the big meadow by the oak tree with the rope swing. He will be calling your name.” Her face would light up and she kept telling her family Chaplain Ray’s good news. It wasn’t long until Monika’s mother, Helen Beyer, spoke to him. “I’ve accepted my husband’s death. All my children with the exception of Monika have also. I must ask you, Chaplain, never again say her father is coming home. You’re going to break my little girl’s heart!”

Rex Ray said...

He told her about his brother being reported killed in World War I. His mother had eight young children when her husband died and she remained a widow 38 years. She believed God would save his brother. After the war, he was in the barn’s hay loft and saw a man walking on the road to their house. His brother was coming home. The army lost track of him when he was hospitalized from Mustard gas.
With tears down her face, Helen asked, “Oh Chaplain Ray, what am I to do? I’ve never heard a single word from my husband in three years. If he were alive, he would move heaven and earth to find us. I remain here, alone, and without hope.”
“If he’s alive, I’ll find your husband.”
Her tears began anew, “I don’t think I can do this. The children will be torn apart, our hopes dashed once more.” Catching her hands, he prayed.
“But where will you go? If my husband can’t find us, and he knows where to look, how can you possibly find him?
“I’ll search the four sectors of prisoners that Allies have in Berlin.”
“Before you go, I want you to have something.” She returned with a picture of her husband and a lock of hair. “The last night we said our goodbyes our baby was asleep. This is some of her hair and my husband said he would carry the other always. If you find a man that claims to be my husband, ask him for Monika’s hair. The children and I will pray for you every day.”
His jeep engine was new. An 88 shell had missed him by inches and destroyed the old one. It was 340 miles to Berlin. He searched the Russian, French, British, and American prison camps with millions of POWs in large open fields with barbwire without success. The American camp was last and as he was driving away disappointed, he heard a GI yell, “Wait!”
A GI was running after him. He asked if he wanted a ride. “No Sir, but I may know something. I overheard your story to the Captain. I have a friend in the British Sector that knows about a German surgeon that’s extremely talented. He doesn’t know his name but the British kidnapped him from the Russians to save a British soldier near death. Since then, they’ve kept him hid.”

Rex Ray said...

Returning to the British prison camp with renewed hope, he told the guard he had orders to find Dr. John Beyer. He retraced his steps with an interpreter, but no luck. “What’s that small building way over there?”
“That’s a destroyed jail. It’s deserted and is going to be torn down.”
“Let’s take a look anyway.”
One undamaged cell had four men on their knees. They looked like they were gambling, but they were praying. None looked like the picture, but the interpreter hoped they might know something. “The American chaplain is looking for Dr. John Beyer. He has good news. Do you know where he can be found?”
Slowly, a tall man stood and spoke in perfect English. “I’m John Beyer. My family and village are lost. I’ve been a prisoner three years. What possible good news could an American have for me?”
“You’re far too old for me to believe you unless you can match this lock of hair.”
Jerking a lock of hair from his shirt, he grabbed him through the bars. “Does my family live?”
Loud praises to God drowned his reply because a big smile was their answer. Hearing there were God’s orders to take him home, their praises were so contagious everyone started shouting.
The British Commander said no, but they could talk more after lunch. “You go ahead. I’m going to stay here and pray.” “If that’s the way you feel, I’ll release him.”
Our father was always a fast driver and had many wrecks. He slowed down when Dr. Beyer said, “I don’t think God saved me from prison to die in a jeep wreck.”
At Rothenburg, they stopped at the large meadow that had a swing. “We’ll talk again, but your daughter comes here ever afternoon to see if this will be the day her daddy comes home,”
Not trusting himself to speak, Dr. Beyer shook hands and turned toward the meadow where a little girl was swinging. He ran towards the big oak. “Monika! Monika! I’m your daddy!” There was fantastic joy when he arrived home with Monika on his shoulders.

For many years German prisoners were not allowed to return home, but were used as forced labor to repair war damage in Russia, France, and England. Two years after the war, four million were still prisoners. About one million had died and another million are still listed as missing.

But at Rothenburg, the town had a large celebration for their doctor where Monika’s mother said, “I’m going to kiss the Chaplain”, and her husband said, “If you don’t I am!”

Christiane said...

WADE, thank you for this post that honors what should never be forgotten in our land.

REX RAY, your stories just get better and better . . . gather them up and send them to Wade's publisher and get 'em published . . . and do it before you leave this Earth for a better place . . . people will want to hear those stories in the time to come when we need to connect with the common sense and the bravery, and the HUMOR, that was and will be again the strength of our country's spirit. Write on, my friend.

The events of the past hold a hope that will be much needed in the future that is coming.

Unknown said...

I attached your blog to my favorites from a search that l made after watching Louie Zamperini story and have been following your writings since. l saw your name, and that is my wife's family name, plus you being a Christian Pastor, l became interested. l saw that you are involved with study of genealogy which also distracts from my time with the Lord. Anne's family is from Avery county NC. Her dad & 2 brothers served in the invasion. Robert McDonald Burleson, her father, was Sarge in maintenance of Pattons tanks 2nd brigade. He received citation for duty performed behind enemy lines. He passed on Pearl Harbor day 2012 , he was 89.
Some interesting life lessons and experiance, his maternal grandfather built a stone church , which still stands , in Crossnore NC. Several uncles were ministers ,1 served as pastor of the stone church.
We serve in Stuart , Fl Community Baptist Church
God bless

Rex Ray said...

You are SO MUCH;
You can pour oil on troubled waters or extend a hand when someone needs a lift.

I’ve been bothered with an ankle venous ulcer for 2 years. Last week I got a skin graft with orders to keep my ankle higher than my heart 23 hours a day for three weeks.

I had hired an agency to find a college sweetheart. She is a widow and showed a box I had given her. It had her name and 1954. Inside was my picture. We’re getting married July 4. If she takes me down the isle ‘piggy-back’, we’ll call it Sadie Hawkins Day.

Christiane said...


sorry to hear about your medical troubles . . . I hope you will heal quickly and be able to stand tall on your wedding day!

My prayers are for your full recovery and a happy married life with your new bride.

God Bless You! (and write those stories down!!!)

Wade Burleson said...

Congrats, Rex! That's super cool about your July
Wedding. Also, praying for your physical healing!