Vance auxiliary field named after 1940s AAF bomber pilot

  • Published
  • By Jim Malachowski
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Historian
General Eisenhower once praised him for "superior airmanship and extraordinary gallantry." Sixty-three years ago, this daring Oklahoma native led the first American bombing mission over occupied Europe and became the first member of the American Forces in Europe to be decorated for gallantry in action against the enemy.
Graduating from the University of Oklahoma, Charles Kegelman intended to go into medicine. Instead, he found himself attending pilot training at Randolph Field, Texas. He received his wings in 1936 and went on to assignments at Barksdale Field, La., and Savannah, Ga. He graduated from bomber pilot's school in May 1942 and left immediately for an overseas assignment at England.
The 15th Bombardment Squadron (Light) had been rushed to England early in 1942 and began training with the Royal Air Force's 226 Squadron. The squadron flew American-made, twin-engine Douglas A-20s, called Bostons by the British. The A-20 was designed as an attack plane to support ground troops and was never intended to be used for strategic bombing. Its small, 1,200-pound bomb load demanded very precise delivery, so bombing missions were flown at low levels, or haystack high, where ground fire tended to be lethal.
On what has become known as the Independence Day Mission, Captain Kegelman and his crew - 2nd Lt. Randall Dorton, Tech. Sgt. Robert Golay and Sgt. Bennie Cunningham -- and five other American bomber crews borrowed A-20s and joined six RAF crews for an attack on four German airfields in Holland. Three of the 12 bombers, two American, including Kegelman, and one British bomb, targeted the Luftwaffe airfield at De Kooy, Holland. They would be the first Army Air Force unit to bomb targets in occupied Europe.
The mission was a daylight raid, depending on striking low and fast to catch the enemy by surprise. Flying just above the waves on the morning of July 4, 1942, they approached the Dutch coastline, flying into heavy German anti-aircraft artillery fire. Unknown to them, German ships had observed the flight and had radioed a warning. Over the coast and flying through intense enemy fire, Captain Kegelman's ship was savaged by anti-aircraft fire. Just as he released his bombs, the ship took a direct hit on the right wing, shredding the engine and shearing off the propeller. Free of the weight of the bombs, the airplane surged upward and then shuddered and began to drop from the sky.
The right wing tip struck the ground and then the tail section hit, ripping open the fuselage as Captain Kegelman fought for control. According to the post-mission report, his plane "bounced off the field at 275 mph, rose again and shot two flak towers out of action, then flew home on one engine."
That one surviving engine was on fire as Captain Kegelman threaded his crippled bomber through coastal artillery and evaded swarming Luftwaffe fighters. The crew managed to put the fire out and keep the ship in the air over the cold North Sea waters and return to their base.
Of the 12 bombers sent on the mission, only two managed to drop their bombs on their assigned targets because of the exceptionally strong resistance of German defenders. The boost to American and Allied morale was tremendous. The Eighth Air Force had struck its first blow.
Following the raid, Gen. Jimmy Doolittle recommended Captain Kegelman for the first Distinguished Service Cross of the Eighth Air Force which was presented to him by Gen. (later President of the United States) Dwight Eisenhower. The Distinguished Service Cross is the nation's second highest combat decoration. The three members of Captain Kegelman's crew also received the DSC.
Promoted to major, Kegelman went on to lead the 15th Bomb Squadron against Nazi targets for nine months. Ordered to Tunisia, he helped support the Africa Campaign. At the time, his squadron of A-20s and a P-38 fighter squadron were the only American Air Force group in Africa.
He came home in 1943 and helped train new pilots until September 1944 when he was sent to the South Pacific. On March 10, 1945, while leading a bombing run over Japanese-held Mindinao, Philippines, his wingman lost control. The two planes collided and plunged into the jungle.
On July 9, 1949, the Air Force renamed Vance Air Force Base's auxiliary field at Great Salt Plains Lake in honor of Col. Charles Kegelman.