History relevant for Air Force mission, future

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- At the beginning of a speech he gave after becoming Air Force chief of staff, Gen. T. Michael Moseley spoke of Frank Andrews, Hap Arnold, Ira Eaker, and Tooey Spaatz and cited historic groups like the Lafayette Escadrille, the Tuskegee Airmen and the Doolittle Raiders. General Moseley did this because he puts great emphasis on the history of American airpower, and he continues to reference our proud heritage as constant encouragement to study our history and take from it lessons we need as we strive toward what he called "a limitless horizon."

Part of that honorable heritage was forged by the valiant acts of one of Enid's brave native sons - Lt. Col. Leon R. "Bob" Vance. Shortly after my arrival at Vance, I saw a small display case sitting rather unobtrusively in the southwest corner of the atrium in the wing headquarters building, and I felt compelled to take a look. I was humbled to see that the nondescript case held the greatest military honor that our nation can bestow - the Medal of Honor.

On June 5, 1944, Colonel Vance led a heavy bombardment group of B-24 Liberators to attack German defenses on the coast of France. Flak pounded the aircraft, disabling three of the four engines, killing the pilot and wounding several members of the crew. Colonel Vance's right foot was practically severed. Despite the dire circumstances, he dragged himself next to the copilot and led the formation to the target, bombing it successfully. With his primary mission completed, he turned the aircraft toward the British coast, cut power to the one remaining engine and glided the crippled bird toward safety.

Once he arrived over friendly territory, he ordered the crew to bail out. He paused, however, as he got a message over the intercom that made him believe one of his crew was still aboard. He turned the stricken aircraft, which still had a 500-pound bomb caught in the bomb bay, back toward the English Channel, where ditching it in the water would at least give his crewman a chance to live. His nearly-severed foot was stuck behind the copilot's seat, but lying on the floor of the cockpit using only aileron and elevators for control, he successfully put his aircraft into the water.

The colonel was trapped in the cockpit of the rapidly sinking aircraft until an explosion ripped through it, throwing him clear. He clung to some floating wreckage, inflated his life vest and began to search for the crewman he believed to be aboard. He was picked up by a rescue craft nearly an hour after ditching in the channel.

The account of Colonel Vance is more than a feel-good story of an Airman from a bygone era. His actions were demonstrations of timeless truths we ignore today at our peril. The Air Force is not a technology showcase with expensive toys far removed from the fight. Colonel Vance's Liberator put bombs on target the day before D-Day. He, and all the Airmen with him, risked their lives - some gave their lives - to save brothers-in-arms they never knew by destroying German resources.

In today's conflicts, Airmen still sweat, bleed and die to save Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines.

Airmen fly cargo throughout the theater, keeping vulnerable convoys off treacherous roads. Airmen keep a watchful eye on the ground, providing real-time intelligence to identify threats. Airmen pave the way for major offensive operations, pounding enemy fortifications and safe houses. Airmen drive trucks through bandit country, providing isolated outposts with essential supplies. Airmen guard detainees, advise officials, protect dignitaries and support troops in contact.

Whether on that fateful day before the Normandy invasion, today in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan or standing against some as-yet unknown threat, the valor of American Airmen will always be essential to victory.

We are all American Airmen. We owe a duty not only to our nation, but also to our wingmen. The colonel understood this and guided his damaged aircraft to safety where his fellow Airman could bail out. He valiantly ditched the aircraft in the water to save a fellow Airman, and although grievously injured, he searched the dark ocean for his comrade. Less apparent, but no less important, were his actions in leading the formation in a damaged aircraft.

Additionally, each gunner in a Liberator was essential to the defense of the aircraft and each aircraft was essential to the defense of the group, in part because of their ability to see and protect from dangers in each others' blind spots. Wingmen are most valuable when they help us avoid a danger we do not see.

Do we want wingmen who warn us when they see a missile approaching us, or do we just want one who makes sure the rescue helicopter picks us up? Likewise, is our concept of being a wingman limited to making sure someone gets home when he's so drunk he can barely stand or is it helping him avoid even getting in that dangerous condition?

Colonel Vance did not live to wear his Medal of Honor. The medal was posthumously awarded, so I initially believed that he had died as a result of his injuries. He actually survived and was on his way back to the United States when his hospital plane was lost and presumed to have crashed into the Atlantic. Enid's hero survived a harrowing ordeal, but lost his life on a routine flight. His tragic death does not tarnish his life, but it does demonstrate there is no place for complacency in our profession. Preparation and vigilance are critical not only to avoiding hidden dangers, but also to take advantage of hidden opportunities. Both are necessary if we are going to continue to improve ourselves and our Air Force.

His actions should be remembered when we reflect on the heroism of Airmen past, but he gave us more than an example of historical gallantry. His actions reflected truths that are as applicable now as they were in his day. I encourage you to take a moment to visit the plain case in the southwest corner of the headquarters atrium and pay your respects to a fellow Airman. Perhaps you will come away with a greater appreciation of what it means to fly, flight and win.