They called him Bob, though his actual first name was Leon, after his father.
He grew up in Enid, graduating from Enid High School in 1939, two years before a fledgling Army Air Corps flying school cropped up on a plot of farmland south of town. Little did he know his name would someday be inexorably linked to that flying school.
It was 70 years ago this week, July 9, 1949, that Enid Air Force Base was renamed for Bob, whose full name was Lt. Col. Leon R. Vance Jr. The local base, which trains hundreds of young pilots a year, proudly bears the name of the Enid native who went on to be a hero during World War II.
Bob Vance attended the University of Oklahoma and became involved in the school’s ROTC program. He then went on to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and graduated as an infantry lieutenant. But he wanted to fly, like his father before him. Leon R. Vance Sr. was not only principal of Longfellow Junior High School, but was himself a pilot.
On June 5, 1944, young Bob Vance was command pilot of a group of B-24 bombers on a mission to attack Germany. Vance’s plane was hit by enemy anti-aircraft fire, killing the pilot, injuring several crew members and nearly severing Vance’s right foot. Despite his serious injuries, and with three of the plane’s engines shot out, Vance led his group over the target and completed the bombing mission. He and his radar operator put a tourniquet on his leg and he flew his bomber to the English coast, where he ordered his crew to bail out.
Vance, however, thought one crewman couldn’t bail out due to his injuries, so Vance ditched the plane in the English Channel, despite having a 500-pound bomb hung up in the bomb bay. An explosion threw him out of the cockpit, and he was rescued nearly an hour later. Vance later learned the injured crew member had been able to parachute to safety thanks to a fellow crew member.
Vance never lived to see his medal. He was being flown home for recuperation when his hospital plane crashed into the sea between Iceland and Newfoundland and was never found.
Since 1949, thousands of young pilots have earned their wings at the pilot training base south of Enid and have hopefully been inspired by Bob Vance’s courage and selfless devotion to his crew.
“We have Lt. Col. Vance’s spirit in our hearts as we continue to train the best pilots in the world,” said 71st Flying Training Wing Vice Commander Col. Jay Johnson.
Enid is proud of the men and women who train every day at Vance Air Force Base, and especially proud of the hometown boy for whom the base is named.