Leon Robert Vance, Jr. was born in Enid, Oklahoma on August 11, 1916. After high school, he entered the United States Military Academy, West Point and graduated with the class of 1939. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the infantry branch.
Vance requested transfer to the Air Corps and was accepted for pilot training. He earned his wings along with a promotion to First Lieutenant on June 21, 1940. With the rapid promotions for existing officers as the United States expanded her military for World War II, he was promoted up to Lieutenant Colonel by September 1943 and was named the Deputy Commander of the United States Army Air Forces‘ 489th Bombardment Group (Heavy).
The 489th flew the Consolidated B-24 Liberator, and was one of the last groups assigned to Europe and the 8th Air Force. They flew their first combat mission on May 30, 1944.
On June 5, 1944, the 489th was assigned a mission to strike coastal defenses at Wimereaux, France on the Pas de Calais with Vance leading the group. This mission was part of the deception plans to make the Germans think the invasion would take place there, and not the actual location of Normandy. The invasion, as we know from history, would begin the following day.
On the group’s second run over the target, the lead ship – Vance was riding as a passenger so he could focus on group leadership and not have to fly – was hit by multiple flak bursts. The anti-aircraft fires killed the pilot, and severely wounded Vance, nearly severing one of his feet. What followed is best described by the language of his Medal of Honor Citation.
*VANCE, LEON R., Jr.
Rank and organization: Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army Air Corps, 489th Bomber Group. Place and date: Over Wimereaux. France, 5 June 1944 (Air Mission). Entered service at. Garden City, N.Y. G.O. No. . 1, 4 January 1945
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.
Vance’s war was over. Tragically, as he was being flown back to the United States for additional medical treatment, the plane carrying him went down in the Atlantic somewhere between Iceland and Newfoundland and was lost without a trace. Vance left behind a wife and a young daughter.
The presentation of Vance’s Medal was delayed because his widow Georgette wanted their daughter to be old enough to accept it on behalf of her father. On October 11, 1946, four year-old Sharon Vance was presented with her dad’s Medal of Honor at what was then known as Enid Army Air Field in his home town.
The 489th Bombardment Group was deactivated on October 17, 1945 and has not been used by the Air Force since.