Vance Air Force Base celebrated the 70th anniversary Tuesday of the base being named for Enid native and Medal of Honor recipient Lt. Col. Leon R. “Bob” Vance.
Leadership of the 71st Flying Training Wing gathered in the lobby of the wing headquarters building Tuesday morning to unveil posters honoring Vance, and to recall his enduring legacy at the base and in the Air Force.
"Today we are honored and humbled to remember and reflect on the service and sacrifice of our namesake, Lt. Col. Leon Vance," said Col. Jay Johnson, 71st Flying Training Wing vice commander. "On this 70th anniversary of the naming of Vance Air Force Base in his honor, we remember the selfless courage he displayed on June 5th, 1944, as he led the 489th Bombing Group in a diversionary attack against German coastal defenses in France, a prelude to D-Day the next day."
Vance's journey to the war began in Enid, where he was born in 1916. He graduated from Enid High School and attended the University of Oklahoma, where he participated in the school’s ROTC program.
He later was accepted to the U.S. Military Academy, and graduated from West Point in 1939 as an infantry lieutenant. Vance asked to go to flying school and was accepted into the Army Air Corps, which became the Army Air Forces during World War II.
Vance served at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, and commanded the 49th Squadron, rising from second lieutenant to lieutenant colonel in less than five years.
By 1944 Vance had been moved from the training command to a B-24 Liberator group stationed in England, as part of the build-up force for D-Day.
Vance earned his Medal of Honor on June 5, 1944, his second and final combat mission. It was the day before the D-Day invasion and B-24 Liberators attacked German positions on the coast of France. Vance was the command pilot.
The B-24s were hit by anti-aircraft artillery. The plane Vance was in was hit by flak, which damaged the engines and wounded members of the crew, including Vance.
Vance’s foot became caught behind the co-pilot’s seat, but he and the co-pilot were able to complete the bombing run and guide the aircraft toward England. He ordered the crew to bail out while continuing to fly the plane, thinking there was one other wounded man aboard who could not be moved.
After his co-pilot bailed out, Vance flew the B-24 from the floor of the cockpit. When the plane hit the ocean, an explosion blew Vance out of the aircraft. He could not find the other wounded man be believed to have still been on the plane, and swam toward the coast. He later was picked up by an air-sea rescue plane.
Following surgery in England, Vance was put on a plane for evacuation to the United States. The plane disappeared July 26, 1944, between Iceland and Newfoundland and was never found.
Vance was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously in 1946 for his courage under fire and selflessness in sticking with the plane to allow the crew to escape.
"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 Medal of Honor citation reads. "His gallant and valorous decision to ditch the aircraft in order to give the crew member he believed to be aboard a chance for life exemplifies the highest traditions of the U.S. Armed Forces."
Enid Air Force Base was renamed in honor of Vance on July 9, 1949.
Seventy years later, Johnson said Vance's spirit of courage and selfless devotion to duty lives on in the instructors and students of the 71st Flying Training Wing.
"We have Lt. Col. Vance’s spirit in our hearts as we continue to train the best pilots in the world," Johnson said.
To hear an audio recording of an interview with Vance about his fateful combat mission, visit the Vance Air Force Base Facebook page at https://tinyurl.com/Vance70th.