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William R. Lawley - Recipient of the Medal of Honor

On a bombing mission to Leipzig 2O February 1944, the B-17 Flying fortress piloted by William Lawley had just reached the bomb release line what bombardier Henry 0. Mason informed him that for some reason their bombs had not dropped when he actuated the trip switch. At practically the same instant a dozen or more German fighters careened in on them for an attack. 

A 20-mm cannon shell burst inside the cockpit, killing the copilot instantly and wounding Lawley. He then heard Mason report that an engine was aflame. The weight of the copilot's body against the control column threw the plane into a dive. And because of the blood that had covered the instruments and windshield, Lawley could neither see out of the plane nor read his instruments for a time. While Mason fought to get rid of the bomb load, which made control of the crippled plane even more difficult, Lawley, though more seriously wounded than he was aware, fought with his waning strength to get the Fortress under control.  He ordered the. crew to bail out only to learn that, including himself, eight were wounded - two so seriously that they were unable to jump. The crew would have to remain with the ship.

He punched the extinguisher button and the flaming engine stopped burning and Lawley felt he could relax a little, but just then another engine caught fire as another swarm of Nazi fighters piled on the crippled Fortress.

While the wounded gunners continued fighting the Germans, Lawley managed to get the second fire under control and Mason succeeded in salvoing their bombs. The bombardier came into the cockpit and saw that Lawley was on the verge of collapse because of his wounds and exertion of flying the plane. That be had remained conscious as long as be did was a miracle, but he slipped into painful oblivion when he saw Mason there to help. 

Mason had had pilot training before be was transferred into bombardier training and was able to keep their B-17 pointed toward England. As quickly as he spotted a fighter base, Mason managed to bring Lawley back to consciousness. The pilot, making a great effort, kept himself conscious by sheer will power as he took over the controls. As they approached, an engine ran out of gas and another burst into flame; and they could not lower the gear. Lawley brought the Fortress in for a wheels-up landing and sparks flashed as the belly of the Fortress scraped the concrete and careened onto the grass. 

The propellers were rather neatly bent back and the plane skidded to a stop. Fires were quickly extinguished and ambulances rushed the wounded to the hospital. For his part in the Leipzig mission Lawley was awarded the Medal of Honor and Mason and radio operator T.A. Dempsey were decorated with Silver Stars. Dempsey administered to the wounded crew members and manned the guns of the most seriously hurt men.

Next...A Look At The B-17 Control Panel


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