The first Medal of Honor since 9/11 was recently awarded posthumously by the President to Michael Murphy. It saddens me that, of the major media, only one, Fox News, carried the ceremony live. This is the highest award for bravery in defending our country. Our people, especially our youth, need to know about the kind of person who risked his life so that the rest of us could live free.
I discovered I had one such hero in my own family. After taking my uncle, Gerald F. Davis, to lunch recently, his daughter Pam asked me to fill out her 87 year old father’s application for veteran’s benefits. As I was filling out the information I asked her if she had her father’s military discharge papers. I needed them to answer some of the questions on the application.
After she gave them to me, to my surprise, I found that he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with 4 Clusters, and the European-African-Middle Eastern Ribbon with 3 Battle Stars.
Now I knew that he had flown 25 combat missions over Germany during World War II (although his discharge papers indicated 30 missions). On the majority of these combat missions he was the lead navigator of his B-17 squadron of 36 bombers.
The lead navigator was responsible for guiding the entire squadron to the bombing targets. There was no GPS then. During the bombing runs, which began at 3 a.m., he used the stars to navigate, then all his calculations were continually being done by hand using dead reckoning and with luck, they returned about 16 hours later before night fell.
Approximately half of all B-17’s built were shot down by the Germans during the war. Being on 25 to 30 missions meant that the chances of his NOT being shot down during one of those runs were slight. Despite six machine guns mounted on the plane, the large B-17 bombers were virtually defenseless to the superior German fighter planes that were able to intercept the bombers.
Flying at about 31,000 feet, the temperature aboard the plane was as low as 60° below zero. Although they had primitive electric-heated suits and oxygen masks, it is an understatement to say that these missions were most uncomfortable. Conditions were very cramped and freezing.
You may remember that some years ago there was a movie about a B-17 crew called the ‘Memphis Belle.’ Many war historians have suggested that the war would not have been won by America and its Allies had not the B-17’s destroyed much of Nazi Germany’s war machine industry.
To my knowledge, my uncle has never mentioned or displayed his Distinguished Service Cross. When I asked to see it, he said that he had misplaced it during one of his moves. He didn’t think it was such a big deal. He feels he was just doing what had to be done to protect his fellow Americans.
When asked if there had ever been a ceremony awarding him his medal, he said yes, but it wasn’t really much of a celebration, since most of the medals awarded were posthumously, that is, for men that had been killed in action. He is not even sure why he got the medal.
He speculated that it was for a mission to destroy the I. G. Farben petro-chemical complexes which were considered almost suicide missions because of the heavy anti-aircraft and fighter-jet defenses. Forty years later, I marveled that he could tell me the exact location of an antiaircraft concrete bunker near where I was stationed in Germany after the war.
On another mission, the initial targets were submarines, built inland but being moved up the Elbe River to the North Sea. Clouds obscured the target so he had to divert to their secondary target, Bremehaven, a major German naval facility and ship port, heavily defended. Due to strong headwinds, their groundspeed was very slow, and they were over the target for very long time.
As a result, anti-aircraft flack passed through much of the bomber and in particular through the floor between Gerald’s legs, leaving a gaping hole in the fuselage large enough to drop a melon through. The flack that passed through his legs killed the pilot above him. The navigator was seated in the protruding nose of the plane, just under the pilot.
The copilot was knocked unconscious by the blast. The oxygen supply was destroyed by the antiaircraft fire. The throttle sticks were also blown off.
The plane went into an uncontrollable dive in what is referred to as a ‘death spin’ at 27,000 feet. The centrifugal force of the spin kept Gerald pinned against a wall and he was unable to bail out.
Somehow, the engineer revived the copilot. He managed to pull the broken throttles out of the ‘death spin’ at just 500 feet above the ground. They still had twelve 500-pound bombs of TNT on the plane.
The hydraulic system was destroyed. All but one engine was knocked out by German antiaircraft fire.
They had to make the decision whether to crash land the plane after dumping the remaining bombs on the German coast and spend the rest of the war as prisoners of war or try to get back across the English Channel and crash-land the bomber at one of the designated crash-landing runways in England. They had no idea whether they would be able to keep the plane airborne long enough to cross the Channel. They weren’t the only ones that this happened to as there was a popular WWII song titled “Coming in on a Wing & a Prayer.”
Had the plane gone down at sea it would have meant almost certain death from the frigid waters. Nonetheless, they decided to risk their lives to get back to England so that they could risk their lives again, to help win the war.
We have been much too negligent in honoring our incredibly heroic veterans such as Gerald Francis Davis, who risked everything so that the rest of us could have our freedoms.
James F. Davis is the President of Accuracy in Academia.