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Medal of Honor, 1st Lieutenant William Robert Lawley, Jr., Air Corps, Army of the United States

First Lieutenant William Robert Lawley, Jr., Air Corps, United States Army. (U.S. Air Force 160510-D-LN615-006)

MEDAL OF HONOR

FIRST LIEUTENANT WILLIAM ROBERT LAWLEY, JR.

The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to First Lieutenant (Air Corps) William Robert Lawley, Jr., United States Army Air Forces, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty, 20 February 1944, while serving as pilot of a B-17 aircraft in the 364th Bombardment Squadron, 305th Bombardment Group (H), Eighth Air Force, on a heavy bombardment mission over enemy-occupied continental Europe. Coming off the target he was attacked by approximately 20 enemy fighters, shot out of formation, and his plane severely crippled. Eight crewmembers were wounded, the copilot was killed by a 20-mm shell. One engine was on fire, the controls shot away, and First Lieutenant Lawley seriously and painfully wounded about the face. Forcing the copilot’s body off the controls, he brought the plane out of a steep dive, flying with his left hand only. Blood covered the instruments and windshield and visibility was impossible. With a full bomb load the plane was difficult to maneuver and bombs could not be released because the racks were frozen. After the order to bail out had been given, one of the waist gunners informed the pilot that two crewmembers 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 crewmembers First Lieutenant Lawley elected to remain with the ship and bring them to safety if it was humanly possible, giving the other crewmembers the option of bailing out. Enemy fighters again attacked but by using masterful evasive action he managed to lose them. One engine again caught on fire and was extinguished by skillful flying. First Lieutenant 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 ran out of gasoline and had to be feathered. Another 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, First Lieutenant Lawley rendered outstanding distinguished and valorous service to our Nation.

General Orders: War Department, General Orders No. 64, August 8, 1944

Action Date: February 20, 1944

Service: United States Army Air Forces

Rank: First Lieutenant

Company: 364th Bombardment Squadron

Regiment: 305th Bombardment Group (H)

Division: 8th Air Force

First Lieutenant William R. Lawley, Jr., is congratulated by Lieutenant General Carl A. Spaatz on the award of the Medal of Honor, 8 August 1944. (Signal Corps, United States Army)

William Robert Lawley, Jr., was born 23 August 1920 at Leeds, Alabama. He was the fourth child of William Robert Lawley, a retired lieutenant colonel and a Baptist minister, and Emma Elizabeth Hazelwood Lawley.

“W.R.” Lawley attended Leeds High School, where he was considered an average student. He played the position of pitcher on the school’s baseball team. He graduated in 1938, and although he wanted to go on to college, he needed to work to support his family. Lawley drove a truck for the Sinclair Oil Company. His supervisor said, “W.R. drove an oil truck for me in 1941. He was extremely quiet and always very friendly. The most I ever saw him do was to work. He’s worked at something just about all of his life, I reckon.”

Lawley enlisted as a private in the Air Corps, Army of the United States (A.U.S.), at Birmingham, Alabama, 9 April 1942. The young man was 6 feet, 1 inch (1.85 meters) tall, weighed 168 pounds (76.2 kilograms), and had brown hair and hazel eyes.

On 25 August 1942, Private Lawley was appointed an aviation cadet and sent to Altus Army Air Field, Oklahoma, for flight training. On completion of training, 21 April 1943, Aviation Cadet Lawley married Miss Amelia Dodd of Dennison, Texas, in the base chapel at Altus A.A.F. The ceremony was performed by a U.S. Army chaplain. The following day, 22 April 1943, he was commissioned a second lieutenant, Air Corps, A.U.S.

2nd Lieutenant Lawley trained as a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot. In November 1943 he was sent to England with the 364th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 305th Bombardment Group (Heavy), based at RAF Chelveston (Air Force Station 105). He was promoted to the rank of first lieutenant, A.U.S., 6 February 1944.

(Left to right) Front row, Sgt. Alfred Wendt, tail gunner; TSgt.Joseph Kobierecki, ball turret gunner; Sgt. Ralph Braswell, waist gunner; Sgt Spears; SSgt Carrol Rowley, top turret gunner; SSgt Thomas Dempsey, radio operator. Back row, 1st Lt. William R. Lawley, Jr., aircraft commander; Lt. Paul Murphy, co-pilot; Lt. Harry Seraphine, navigator; Lt. Harry Mason, bombardier. (Home of the Heroes)

1st Lieutenant Lawley was on his tenth combat mission 20 February 1944. He and his crew were flying a new Douglas-built B-17G-25-DL Flying Fortress, 42-38109, named Cabin in the Sky, after a popular musical of the time.  This was the bombers very first combat mission. It carried the identification letters WF P on its fuselage.

42-38109 had built by the Douglas Aircraft Company at its Long Beach, California, plant. The new airplane was sent to the modification center at Denver, Colorado, 15 December 1943 where the latest combat modifications were installed. It was then sent to the heavy bomber training squadrons at Mitchell Army Air Field, Mitchell, South Dakota, 20 January 1944. Flown across the North Atlantic Ocean, 42-38109 arrived at Chelveston 10 February 1944.

Following the 20 February 1944 mission, 42-38109 never flew again. Damaged beyond repair, it was salvaged by the 2nd Strategic Air Depot, 23 February 1944.

Wreck of Lieutenant Lawley’s Douglas-built B-17G Flying Fortress 42-38109, “Cabin in the Sky,” at RAF Redhill, Surrey, England. (U.S. Air Force, 53958 A.C.)

Lieutenant Lawley flew 14 additional combat missions, He was returned to the United States in September 1944. On 9 January 1945, he was promoted to captain, A.U.S.

Following the end of the War, Captain Lawley remained in the Air Corps. On 5 July 1946, he was appointed to the permanent rank of 1st lieutenant, Air Corps, United States Army (U.S.A.). His rank was retroactive to 22 April 1946.

Captain Lawley was promoted to major in August 1949.

Lawley’s official United States Air Force biography reads:

He returned to the United States in September 1944, serving as a public relations officer at Hendricks Field, Fla. Promoted to captain in January 1945, he completed the public relations course at Craig Field, Ala. and the Air Tactical School at Tyndall AFB, Fla., serving during part of this time as aide to Gen. Muir S. Fairchild at Maxwell Field Ala. He then went to HQ USAF in Washington as administrative assistant to Maj. Gen. David M. Schlatter in a special weapons assignment, with promotion to major in August 1949.

Major Lawley, in February 1950, held special assignments to the CG of ARDC, completing the Navy Language School at Fort Myer, Va., and the Strategic Intelligence School in Washington, D.C. He then went to Brazil, with promotion to lieutenant colonel, as Asst. Air Attache. He served until 1954. Coming home, he attended the Air Command and Staff School at Air University, Maxwell AFB, Ala., and on graduation was assigned as commander of the 55th Air Refueling Squadron at Forbes AFB, Kan. He stayed at Forbes as Aircrew Maintenance Staff Officer for the 21st Air Division, as Deputy Base Commander, and as Deputy Vice Commander of the 815th Combat Support Group. He was promoted to colonel March 27, 1959. In January 1963, he became Assistant Phase Chief. Director of Curricular, at the Air War College at Maxwell AFB.

—Air Force Historical Support Division, Fact Sheets, Lawley—1st Lt William R. Lawley Jr

Colonel William Robert Lawley, Jr., United States Air Force, died  29 May 1999 at Montgomery, Alabama. He remains were interred at Greenwood Serenity memorial Gardens, in Montgomery.

Colonel William Robert Lawley, Jr., United States Air Force. (U.S. Air force)

© 2021, Bryan R. Swopes

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2 November 1944

Second Lieutenant Robert Edward Femoyer, Air Corps, United States Army. (U.S. Air Force)

2 November 1944: The 8th Air Force sent 638 B-17 Flying Fortress four-engine heavy bombers, escorted by 642 P-51 Mustang and P-38 Lightning fighters from their bases in England, over 500 miles to attack the I.G. Farben Leunawerke synthetic oil refinery at Leuna, a 3-square-mile facility a few miles from Merseberg, Germany.

The Leuna refinery used a hydrogeneration process to produce aviation gasoline from coal. This was the most heavily defended target in all of Germany, surrounded by more than 1,700 88 mm and 105 mm antiaircraft guns (“flak”) in 36-gun batteries. According the the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, “Aircrews viewed a mission to Leuna as the most dangerous and difficult assignment of the air war.

One B-17 pilot described it: “When I describe the flak over Leuna as a cloud, I don’t mean just a wall of smoke; it was a box, the length, width, and depth of our route to the ‘bombs away’ point.”

On the 2 November attack, the bombers were under “intense” anti-aircraft fire for 18 minutes, and heavy fire for 30 minutes. They were also attacked by a record 700 Luftwaffe fighters including the new Me 262 twin-engine jets. The 8th Air Force lost 38 B-17 Flying Fortress bombers and 28 fighters. An astonishing 481 bombers were damaged.

Second Lieutenant Robert E. Femoyer was the navigator on one of those B-17s, commanded by Second Lieutenant Jerome Rosenblum. B-17G-25-DL Flying Fortress 42-38052, Hotshot Green, of the 711th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 447th Bombardment Group (Heavy) based at RAF Rattlesden, was badly damaged by anti-aircraft fire and fell out of formation.

Medal of Honor
Medal of Honor

The President of the United States
in the name of The Congress
takes pleasure in presenting the
Medal of Honor
to

FEMOYER, ROBERT E.

(Air Mission)

Rank and organization: Second Lieutenant, 711th Bombing Squadron, 447th Bomber Group, U.S. Army Air Corps.

Place and date: Over Merseberg, Germany, 2 November 1944.

Entered service at: Jacksonville, Fla. Born: 31 October 1921, Huntington, W. Va.

G.O. No.: 35, 9 May 1945

Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty near Merseburg, Germany, on 2 November 1944. While on a mission, the bomber, of which 2d Lt. Femoyer was the navigator, was struck by 3 enemy antiaircraft shells. The plane suffered serious damage and 2d Lt. Femoyer was severely wounded in the side and back by shell fragments which penetrated his body. In spite of extreme pain and great loss of blood he refused an offered injection of morphine. He was determined to keep his mental faculties clear in order that he might direct his plane out of danger and so save his comrades. Not being able to arise from the floor, he asked to be propped up in order to enable him to see his charts and instruments. He successfully directed the navigation of his lone bomber for 2-½ hours so well it avoided enemy flak and returned to the field without further damage. Only when the plane had arrived in the safe area over the English Channel did he feel that he had accomplished his objective; then, and only then, he permitted an injection of a sedative. He died shortly after being removed from the plane. The heroism and self-sacrifice of 2d Lt. Femoyer are in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Army.

B-17 Flying Fortress bombers under anti-aircraft artillery fire over Merseberg, Germany. (U.S. Air Force)
B-17 Flying Fortress bombers under anti-aircraft artillery fire over Merseberg, Germany. (U.S. Air Force)

Robert Edward Femoyer was born 30 October 1921 at Huntington, West Virginia. He was the first of two children of Edward Peter Femoyer and Mary Elizabeth Kramer Femoyer. After graduating from St. Joseph’s Central Catholic High School in Huntington, Femoyer attended Marshall College for one year before transferring to the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute (better known as Virginia Tech), at Blacksburg, Virginia, as a member of the Class of 1944.

In February 1942, when he registered with the draft board, Femoyer was an employee of the Hercules Powder Company, a manufacturer of explosives. He was described as having brown hair and eyes, was 6 feet tall and weighed 150 pounds. Femoyer joined the Enlisted Reserve Corps at Roanoke, Virginia, 11 November 1942. He enlisted as a private in the Air Corps 4 February 1943 at Miami Beach, Florida, where he received basic military training.

Aviation Cadet Robert Edward Femoyer, Air Corps, United States Army, 1943. (Imperial War Museum)

After aircrew training at the University of Pittsburgh, March through June, 1943, Aviation Cadet Femoyer was sent to the Mississippi Institute of Aeronautics, Jackson, Mississippi, for flight training. He did not qualify as a pilot but was recommended for training as a navigator. He trained at Selman Army Airfield, near Monroe, Louisiana, and attended aerial gunnery school at Fort Myers, Florida. On graduation, 10 June 1944, Robert Edward Femoyer was commissioned as a second lieutenant.

Following combat crew training at Lincoln, Nebraska, he was deployed to England in September 1944. Lieutenant Femoyer was assigned to the 711th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 447th Bombardment Group (Heavy) at RAF Rattlesden, southeast of Bury St. Edmunds Suffolk, England.

Second Lieutenant Robert Edward Femoyer’s body was returned to the United States in 1949, and buried at the Greenlawn Cemetery, Jacksonville, Florida. A residential building at Virginia Polytechnic Institute was built following the war and named Femoyer Hall.

Douglas B-17G-25-DL Flying Fortress 42-38052, 711th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 447th Bombardment Group (Heavy), RAF Rattlesden, Suffolk, England. At the time of this photograph, the airplane carried the name, Lucky Stehley Boy. (Mark Brown, U.S. Air Force)
Douglas B-17G-25-DL Flying Fortress 42-38052, 711th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 447th Bombardment Group (Heavy), RAF Rattlesden, Suffolk, England. At the time of this photograph, the airplane carried the name, Lucky Stehley Boy. (Mark Brown, U.S. Air Force)

B-17G-25-DL 42-38052 was one of 2,400 B-17 Flying Fortress four-engine heavy bombers built by the Douglas Aircraft Company at Long Beach, California from 1943 to 1945. 2,395 of these were the “G” variant, with its distinctive “chin” gun turret. -052 was delivered to the U.S. Army Air Forces on Christmas Eve, 24 December 1943. In January 1944, the new bomber was assigned to the 711th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 447th Bombardment Group (Heavy), based at U.S. Army Air Forces Station 126 (RAF Rattlesden), Suffolk, England. The new bomber flew its first combat mission 4 February 1944.

The B-17G was camouflaged with the standard U.S.A.A.F. olive drab sides and upper surfaces, with neutral gray underneath. The vertical fin and wing tips were painted yellow and two vertical green stripes circled the aft fuselage. The four engine cowlings were painted blue, and a blue chevron was painted on the top of the right wing, indicating that this B-17 belonged to the 711th Bomb Squadron. The 447th’s group identification, a white letter “K” surrounded by a black square, was painted on the upper portion of the fin. Below this was its abbreviated serial number, “238052.” A black capital “L”, identifying the individual airplane, was painted at the bottom of the fin.

42-38052 was a replacement aircraft and was flown by several crews. It carried the names El Mal Centavo (“The Bad Penny”) and Lucky Stehley Boy, (“. . . so named in honor of Dr. Stehley of Cumberland. . . .”—Grant County Press, Petersburg, West Virginia, Thursday, 31 August 1944, Page 1, Column 6.)

This Vega Aircraft Corporation-built B-17G-105-VE Flying Fortress, 44-85784, seen at Rotterdam, May 1985, is painted in the markings of the 447th Bombardment Group (Heavy). (Jan Arkesteijn)
This Vega Aircraft Corporation-built B-17G-105-VE Flying Fortress, 44-85784, seen at Rotterdam, May 1985, is painted in the markings of the 447th Bombardment Group (Heavy). (Jan Arkesteijn)

On 27 March 1945, -052 crash-landed at B-53, a forward airfield near Merville, France, when its left main landing gear failed to extend. It was repaired and survived the war.

B-17G-25-DL 42-38052, with one main gear extended, just before crash landing at B-53, 1340 hours, 27 March 1945. (U.S. Air Force)
B-17G-25-DL 42-38052, with one main gear extended, just before crash landing at B-53, 1340 hours, 27 March 1945. (U.S. Air Force)

The veteran bomber was flown back to the United States and on 15 August 1945, arrived at the reclamation center at Kingman, Arizona. It was scrapped 8 November 1945, after less than two years of service.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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