Uncommon Valor part two: Lt. Col. Leon Vance

Lt. Col. Leon R. Vance, Medal of Honor recipient. Vance Air Force Base, Okla., is named in his honor. (U.S. Air Force illustration/Mike Carabajal)

Lt. Col. Leon R. Vance, Medal of Honor recipient. Vance Air Force Base, Okla., is named in his honor. (U.S. Air Force illustration/Mike Carabajal)

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- Of those Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines who have earned our nation's highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor, more are awarded their medals posthumously than not. For Lt. Col. Leon Robert Vance, an Army Air Corps pilot during World War II, this was the case - though Colonel Vance survived the engagement for which he was awarded the medal, his plane was lost and presumed to have crashed on the flight back to the United States from Europe.

Leon Vance was born in Enid, Oklahoma, and enlisted in the Army as an infantry officer. After his commission, he earned his wings at Kelly Field, Texas, and became a first lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, becoming an advanced flying techniques instructor shortly thereafter.

In 1941, 1st Lt. Vance assumed command of the 49th Squadron at Goodfellow Field, Texas, where he met a young Army Corporal named Mark Mathis, along with his brother, Jack. The brothers worked for Lieutenant Vance for almost a year until they left for flight training, and their valor in the skies over Europe inspired Lieutenant Vance.

Through promotions to captain, and then major, the young squadron commander continued to train young men for combat duty as the United States declared war on Japan following the attacks at Pearl Harbor. By 1944, now-Lt. Col. Vance was the deputy commander of the 489th Bombardment Group, which flew B-24 Liberators in support of Allied actions in Europe.

On the day before D-Day, June 5, 1944, Lt. Col. Vance lead a raid against enemy positions in France. From his Medal of Honor citation:

"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."

In his hometown, Enid Air Force Base, Okla., was renamed Vance Air Force Base in 1949. At Goodfellow, the Vance Deployment Center is named after this gallant officer who gave everything for his country.

(This article is part two in a series on Medal of Honor recipients from Goodfellow Air Force Base).