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First Name: Leon

Last Name: Vance

Birthplace: Enid, OK, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: U.S. Army Air Forces (1941 - 1947)

Home of Record: West Point, NY
Middle Name: Robert

Date of Birth: 11 August 1916

Date of Death: 26 July 1944 (Presumed)

Rank: Lieutenant Colonel

Years Served: 1939-1944
Leon Robert Vance, Jr.
'Bob, Philo'

•  World War II (1941 - 1945)


Leon Robert Vance, Jr.

Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army Air Forces

Medal of Honor Recipient

World War II

Lieutenant Colonel Leon Robert Vance, Jr. (11 August 1916 - 26 July 1944) was a U.S. Army Air Forces officer and pilot who was posthumously awarded the U.S. military's highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor, for his heroic actions during World War II.

Leon Robert Vance, Jr. was born on 11 August 1916 and raised in Enid, OK, as the fourth child of Jesse and Minnie Vance. He attended Enid schools from first grade through high school. His father was the local middle school principal and also a flight instructor, while his uncle was a decorated World War I flyer who lost his life during the war in France. Vance's father had furthered his son's interest in following his uncle's footsteps by his own enthusiasm for flying.

Vance was considered an above-average student and a great athlete. His father, as principal, thought of education as having great importance, and this spurred Vance, Jr. to challenge himself by taking difficult courses in high school. He averaged a 94 percent in mathematics.

Vance attended Oklahoma University for two years, becoming a member of Phi Delta Theta. After his sophomore year, Vance transferred to the U.S. Military Academy as a member of the class of 1939. A 1999 article in U.S. News and World Report called Vance and his West Point classmates the "Warrior Class" because they were destined to fight in World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

While spending time at Mitchell Air Base, Vance met Garden City resident, Georgett Drury. They married upon his graduation from West Point and had one daughter named Sharon. Vance would later name his B-24 Liberator after his daughter.

Vance requested to become a pilot and was accepted into the Army Air Corps, later renamed the Army Air Forces. He served at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, TX, and commanded the 49th Squadron before being sent to Europe. He rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming a Lieutenant Colonel is less than five years.

After arriving in the United Kingdom, Vance was assigned to a B-24 Liberator group and participated in one combat mission. For his second mission, he commanded a bombing raid against German positions on the coast of France in support of the D-Day landings, which were to occur the next day. As his unit, the 489th Bombardment Group, approached France on 5 June 1944, they came under anti-aircraft fire. Vance's plane was severely damaged, losing three engines, the pilot was killed, and several crewmen, including Vance himself, were wounded. Vance's foot was nearly severed and had become wedged under the co-pilot's seat. Despite this, he led the 489th through the completion of the mission. On the return flight, Vance took over the pilot's duties, piloting from the floor, as his foot was still trapped, and, with the co-pilot, struggled to fly the crippled plane back to England. Upon reaching the English coast, he ordered the crew to parachute to safety. Believing that one man had been too wounded to jump, Vance decided to stay in the aircraft and performed a crash landing in the English Channel. As the plane began to sink, Vance was trapped inside by his foot (still caught under the co-pilot's seat) and by the upper turret, which had collapsed on top of him in the crash. An explosion blew him clear of the wreckage and, after unsuccessfully searching for the other crewman, he swam towards shore. He was rescued fifty minutes later.

After receiving medical treatment in the United Kingdom, he was sent by plane back to the U.S. The plane disappeared and was presumed to have crashed in the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between Iceland and Newfoundland. His body was never found. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions on 5 June 1944.

Medal of Honor

Rank and organization: Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army Corps, 489th Bomber Group.

Place and date: Over Wimereaux. France, 5 June 1944.

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 who 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.

Medals and Awards

Medal of Honor
Purple Heart


In his honor, the airbase in his hometown of Enid, OK, was re-named Vance Air Force Base on 9 July 1949.

Death and Memorial

Lieutenant Colonel Leon Robert Vance, Jr. was lost at sea due to an airplane crash on 26 July 1944. His body was never recovered. His name is inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial in Coton, Cambridgeshire, England.

Honoree ID: 1686   Created by: MHOH




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