Wednesday, June 05, 2019

D-Day, Vance Air Force Base, and Leon 'Bob' Vance

Wade and Rachelle at Vance, Enid, OK
The photo of Rachelle and me (left) was taken at the invitation of Col. Paul Vicars, my mentor when I served as an Honorary Commander at Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Oklahoma.

Vance's mission is to train world-class pilots for the United States Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and its Allies and to prepare the Air Expeditionary Force (AEF) to deploy in support of the combatant commanders.

Rachelle and I have developed some wonderful friendships with the men and women from Vance.  From current  Commander Col. Corey Simmons and his wife Dawn, Col. Andy Hamann and his wife Tammy (currently overseas), and soon-to-be Col. Paul Vicars and his wife Marti, our lives have been enriched by these friendships and many more men and women who found themselves stationed at Vance.

Just last week, Rachelle, Rob and Daneille Cummins, and I shared dinner in Enid with Paul Vicars. Paul is a good friend. When he lived in Enid, Paul taught in my absence one Sunday at Emmanuel. Recently, he's been overseeing the development and implementation of U.S. Air Force Pilot Training Next, the new pilot training program designed specifically to integrate new technologies to make pilot training faster, more productive, and more cost-efficient. Paul is currently obtaining his Ph.D. from Baylor University. These are the caliber of men and women Vance brings to Enid, Oklahoma.

Though many Americans have heard of Vance Air Force Base, few know why it is named Vance Air Force Base. How the United States Army Air Corp Base in Enid, Oklahoma, came to be called Vance Air Force Base is a story that is worth telling and one worth remembering. So I write this post to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 2019, my way of saying "Thanks" to the countless men and women who've fought for freedom from tyranny.

Someone once said:
"If you can pick up a book and read it thank a teacher. If you can read the book in English thank a soldier." 
Lt. Col. Leon Robert Vance, Jr. (1916-1944)
Today I would like to thank Leon Robert "Bob" Vance (1916-1944), the man for whom Vance Air Force is named.

Bob posthumously received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic actions on June 5, 1944 (75 years ago today).

Bob's mission that day was to soften defenses along the coastline of France in preparation for the D-Day Invasion which was to occur the following morning, June 6, 1944.

The very compelling story of Bob Vance is told in the exit lobby of the impressive American Cemetery and Memorial in Normandy, France. During news coverage of the ceremonies at Normandy today and tomorrow, you will see the American Cemetery on your television screen. The story I'm about to tell you is told in that lobby, and Vance Air Force Base, Enid, Oklahoma, is known around the world because of it.

Rather than recount what Leon Vance did on June 5, 1944, I'll cite from his Congressional of Honor award.
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.
Bob Vance survived the events of June 5, 1944.

But there's more to Bob Vance's story that you must know. 

Wade and Col. Norman Lamb at Normandy, France (2013)
Born in Enid, Oklahoma, on August 11, 1916, Bob's father was the principal at Enid's Longfellow Middle School, and his mother was an Enid educator as well. Bob Vance graduated from Enid High School in 1933.

Bob had been an exceptional athlete and an honors student in high school, and after graduation, he 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 the next four years at West Point, graduating with The Class of 1939,  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 had trained to become a pilot for the U.S. Army Air Corp, now called the United States 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.

When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, the Army assigned Lieutenant Robert Vance to train Army Air Corp pilots at various Army Air Corp bases around the United States, including a new Army Air Corp base opened in Enid, Oklahoma, in an effort to fill the shortage of pilots required for the war.

Bob 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 on in pilot training at San Angelo, Texas,  was Horace S. Carswell. Carswell, a native Texan, earned his wings in November 1938 and was subsequently assigned as an instructor in the Air Corp, just like Lt. Bob 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

B-24 Liberator Bomber
Lieutenant Colonel Bob Vance kissed his wife and two-year-old daughter Sharon goodbye 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 on June 5, 1944, was to fly with a crew in a bomber named the Missouri Sue and to drop bombs on the German lines located on the shores of France twenty-four hours before the invasion. 

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 (see Medal of Honor Citation). 

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.

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 excitement 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. 

Bob Vance 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. Bob's depression increased when word came that his own father had been killed in an aircraft accident.

The only thing that kept Bob Vance going during his eight weeks of recovery was the knowledge that he would soon see his wife and his little two-year-old girl Sharon. 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 would declare, "Daddy's coming home!" and excitedly clap. 

But Bob Vance never made it home.

Somewhere between Newfoundland and Iceland, Bob's medical evacuation plane taking him home to America went down in the ocean. 

Georgette received a telegram, informing her that her husband was reported missing "while being evacuated by air to the United States. Search is continuing and you are assured that as further information is received you will be kept promptly advised. Your distress during this period of anxiety is fully understood."

The Vance family was stricken with grief.

The plane was never been discovered, nor was Bob Vance's body ever been recovered. 

A few months after Bob Vance's plane went down over the Atlantic, the U.S. government told Georgette that her husband had been bestowed the Medal of Honor.

Georgette requested that the official 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.

It is the highest recognition given to American soldiers.

In July 1949, the United States renamed the Air Force Base in Enid, Oklahoma Vance Air Force Base in honor of Leon Robert "Bob" Vance, Jr. (1916-1944). 

On this 75th anniversary of D-Day, I say "Thank You" to Bob Vance and every man and woman in our Armed Services. We are grateful to you. We are proud of you. We will always take time to remember your sacrifice

Somewhere out in the Atlantic, lying on the bottom of the ocean floor is the plane holding the remains of Bob Vance.

He and the thousands of others who have given their lives that we might live in freedom will never be forgotten.


Adam Benjamin said...

Well written post about the greatest generation.

wayworn wanderer said...

Wonderful post! Bless you! (And Go Army!)

Anonymous said...

Fine man, fine story of his life, sacrifice, and the naming of an airfield in his memory. Thank God for these brave men who fought so hard to keep us free. May we never forget the price our freedom cost these brave warriors.

Rex Ray said...


My father was stationed in Patton’s Forth Armored Division in England at this time before D Day. To get information to mother without being censored, he would say something a certain way which meant look under the postage stamp. At 13, I remember one: “Bombed last night”.

While in England, he was given an award for helping put ‘body parts’ in body bags. A crippled airplane had crashed while landing with no survivors. His ‘outfit’ interred France three days after D-Day, and he stayed on the front lines until the War was over.

I know under terrifying circumstances, wise decisions are hard to think of. If one man was unable to jump because of injuries, why would he have a better chance of getting out when the plane was underwater?

If my twin brother couldn’t jump from the plane, I would have picked him up even if he was unconscious and jumped with him. I’d pulled his rip-cord and then pulled mine.

Wonder how many planes got a bomb hung in the bomb bay? John F. Kennedy’s oldest brother had the same circumstance. A few seconds before his plane blew up, other planes heard him say, “I have an idea.”

While on a mission trip to Kyrgyzstan, we visited a museum that showed a large picture of a cowboy riding a falling bomb. They must have gotten the idea from this short movie that had a bomb hung in the bomb bay.

Wade Burleson said...

Wow - "under the postage stamp" - "bombed last night."

What a cool story, Rex!

Christiane said...

"Somewhere out in the Atlantic, lying on the bottom of the ocean floor is the plane holding the remains of Bob Vance.
He and the thousands of others who have given their lives that we might live in freedom will never be forgotten."

(from Rev. 20:13)

Headless Unicorn Guy said...

Not just a heavy bomber group CO going up against excellent German air defenses, but in a B-24 "Incinerator", so nicknamed because they were more fragile than a B-17 and prone to BAD inflight fires and fuel-cookoff explosions. Any leak or holing in the fuel tanks and avgas would run down the wings from the dihedral of the B-24's Davis wing to the fuselage next to the bomb bay where all the electrical lines and relays were. Avgas plus spark, right next to the bombs...

Gary Sweeten said...

An amazing story.

Christiane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christiane said...

our hope is in Christ the Lord