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This Day in History: Leon Vance, a hero who helped make D-Day possible

On this day in 1946, an American pilot is awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery over the skies of northern France. Lt. Col. Leon Vance’s heroism had occurred nearly two years earlier, during the summer of 1944.


Vance was then serving as deputy Commander of the 489th Bombardment Group. Those bombers were to repeatedly attack areas in northern France in the days before D-Day. The effort helped to keep enemy forces away from the beaches of Normandy.

An infant Sharon is pictured with her dad. The bomber behind them was named for her: It was The Sharon D.

On June 5, Vance was participating in one of these attacks. A first pass didn’t go so well: A malfunction prevented the plane from releasing its bombs. Vance immediately ordered his bomber around for another pass.


He’d release those bombs manually if he had to!


“The second run became hell,” one crewman later reported. Enemy fire was intense. The pilot was killed and several crew members were injured—including Vance. His right foot became trapped, nearly severed.


They’d bombed their target, but now they had to figure out how to get home. Multiple engines were failing, and the plane was in danger of stalling. Vance struggled to sit up and work with the copilot; they regained some degree of control over the plane. As they neared the English coast, Vance ordered everyone to bail out. He would continue on. He erroneously believed that one crew member was still aboard, too injured to parachute out. He hoped to give this man a chance at life by ditching the bomber in the English Channel—an incredibly difficult feat.


Making matters worse, a 500-pound bomb was still hung up in the bomb bay. So Vance needed to safely ditch a crippled bomber, even as he avoided setting off the bomb. And he still couldn’t climb into the pilot’s seat because of his trapped foot.


Vance’s citation describes him “lying on the floor using only aileron and elevators for control and the side window of the cockpit for visual reference.”


Amazingly, he made it. But he was still pinned in the cockpit, and the plane was filling up with water.


“That was the worst part of the whole thing,” he later told a reporter. “I was certain that I was gone. But I was honestly past the point of being frightened. I just felt sad . . . . I thought of hundreds of things. All spinning around my wife, the baby, mother, father, family. And all of it clouded by this terrible, deep melancholy.”


Vance surely would have drowned but for a timely explosion, which threw him from the wreckage. He searched for the other crew member but finally began swimming for shore. He’d survived, albeit without his foot.


If only the story ended there.


Nearly two months later, Vance was on his way back to the United States, where he would receive further treatment and a prosthetic foot. Unfortunately, the transport plane that he was on disappeared somewhere near Iceland.


Vance had been mere hours away from safely returning to his family, but now his daughter would grow up without her father.


When Vance’s widow was notified that her husband was to receive the Medal of Honor, she asked that the ceremony be delayed. She wanted his daughter to be older when that ceremony occurred.


In 1946, a 4-year-old Sharon Vance received the Medal on behalf of her father.


Many years later, Sharon spoke to a reporter about her dad.


“It’s hard to put into words the respect and love you can feel for someone you’ve never met,” she said. “But my grandmother kept my father’s memory alive for me, and I feel close to him at least in spirit.”


Primary Sources