B-17 pilot 1st Lt William R Lawley Jr earned the nation’s highest award for gallantry at the risk of his life during a Flying Fortress bombing mission over Leipzig within the frame of Operation Argument.
The USAAF’s mighty World War II bomber forces were designed for unescorted, precision daylight bombing, but no-one foresaw the devastation that German radar-directed interceptors would inflict on them. Following the failures of 1943’s Schweinfurt-Regensburg raids, and with D-Day looming, the Allies urgently needed to crush the Luftwaffe’s ability to oppose the landings.
In February 1944, the Allies conceived and fought history’s first-ever successful offensive counter¬air (OCA) campaign, Operation Argument or “Big Week.” Attacking German aircraft factories with hundreds of heavy bombers, escorted by the new long-range P-51 Mustang, it aimed both to slash aircraft production and force the Luftwaffe into combat, allowing the new Mustangs to take their toll on the German interceptors.
On Feb. 20, 364th Bomb Squadron (BS) B-17 pilot 1st Lt William R Lawley Jr earned the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award, for gallantry at the risk of his life during a Flying Fortress bombing mission over Leipzig within the frame of Operation Argument.
As explained by Douglas C. Dildy in his book “Big Week” 1944, Operation Argument and the breaking of the Jagdwaffe, on that day the 305th Bomb Group (BG) formed the 40th Combat Wing’s lead combat group with its 364th BS flying – at 28,000ft – as its high squadron. Flying one of the newest B-17Gs in the group – 42-38109 “Cabin in the Sky” – 1st Lieutenant William R. “Bill” Lawley maintained formation with his leader as the wing crossed their target and unleashed their loads of 500lb GP HE and incendiary bombs. But the sub-zero temperatures at high altitude froze “Cabin in the Sky’s” bomb release mechanism and its eight 500-pounders refused to fall.
As the formation rolled out of its turn off target, it was hit head-on by approximately 20 Me 109G interceptors that had raced northwards from Neubiberg, near Munich. Led by Major Walter Brede, I./JG 301’s vicious frontal attack smashed the B-17’s cockpit, killing the co-pilot, Lieutenant Paul Murphy, wounding Lawley and seven others, and set the number two engine ablaze.
The stricken Fortress plummeted from the formation, the wounded pilot wrestling to recover to level flight at 12,000ft through sheer strength of holding the co-pilot’s body off the controls and pulling with all his might. Lawley ordered the crew to bail out but was quickly informed that two of the gunners were so severely wounded that they would not survive.
His Medal of Honor citation reads, “…Forcing the copilot’s body off the controls, he brought the airplane out of a steep dive, flying with his left hand only. After the order to bail out had been given, one of the waist gunners informed Lieutenant Lawley that two crew members were so severely wounded that it would be impossible for them to bail out. With the fire in the engine spreading, the danger of an explosion was imminent. Because of the helpless condition of his wounded crew members 1st Lt. Lawley elected to remain with the ship and bring them to safety if it was humanly possible. Enemy fighters again attacked but by using masterful evasive action he managed to lose them. 1st Lt. Lawley remained at his post, refusing first aid until he collapsed from sheer exhaustion caused by loss of blood, shock, and the energy he had expended in keeping control of his plane. He was revived by the bombardier and again took over the controls. Coming over the English coast [one] engine started to burn and continued to do so until a successful crash landing was made on a small fighter base. Through his heroism and exceptional flying skill, 1st Lt. Lawley rendered outstanding distinguished and valorous service to our Nation.”
“Big Week” 1944, Operation Argument and the breaking of the Jagdwaffe is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force via This Day in Aviation