Nearly 60 years after 1st Lt. Walter Mayer saved the crew of his crippled B-17 by making an extraordinary emergency landing on an unfamiliar Belgian airfield, the retired U.S. Air Force officer will be presented with the Distinguished Flying Cross at a ceremony Thursday in Spokane.
Mayer, of Spokane, will receive the award from Maj. Gen. Paul Essex, former commander of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild Air Force Base, during the All-City Civic Military Luncheon at the WestCoast Ridpath Hotel. Col. Anthony Mauer, the wing’s current commander, and Mayor Jim West will be among 400 military and civilian dignitaries in attendance.
When told at age 83 that he would receive the medal he earned as a 23-year-old pilot, Mayer’s first response was that each member of his crew deserved the medal.
“I don’t take any more credit than anyone else on that crew,” said Mayer, who added that the success of the 303rd Bomb Group, of which he was a part, was the result of teamwork.
He is adamant that everyone, from the base cook to the ground crew to the men who flew so many bombing missions over Europe, shares in the honor.
However, it is Mayer’s performance during one particular mission over Cologne, Germany, on Nov. 10, 1944, for which he alone will be honored on Thursday.
At 26,000 feet, Mayer’s B-17 was hit by enemy anti-aircraft fire, taking out both engines on the right wing.
“B-17s don’t fly very well on two engines,” Mayer said.
Severely damaged, the bomber’s crew was able to drop its payload of bombs as Mayer tried to keep up with the bomber formation.
“We were losing 200 to 300 feet a minute” of altitude, Mayer said, and he decided to try to make an emergency landing at a P-47 fighter base in St. Trond, Belgium.
The crew had lost radio contact with its base in Molesworth, England.
The air speed indicator had gone out soon after takeoff. Fuel was spewing from the ruptured tank on the right wing.
The bomber was descending so fast that the bullet-proof windshield and nose cone iced up, preventing the crew from seeing out.
Mayer later wrote that P-47s were scrambling from the runway below, so he opted to land the bomber on an alternate parking runway of the airbase, which had recently been seized by Allied forces from the Germans.
Upon approach, the bombardier and navigator crouched between the pilot and co-pilot.
The navigator noticed a steamroller on the near end of the runway through the bombsight glass.
With his head stuck out of the cockpit window so he could see, Mayer bounced the heavy bomber over the steamroller and back onto the runway.
The propeller of a P-51 fighter parked on the runway tore off the B-17’s right wingtip and the fuel tank attached to it.
Mayer’s plane, traveling at 15 to 20 mph, crashed into a B-24 parked at the end of the runway, slicing it in half.
The parked bomber had just been loaded with about 1,100 gallons of fuel.
Mayer’s co-pilot, Lt. Ray Gradle, cut the master switch, shutting off electrical power that might have sparked an explosion. None of the crew was seriously injured.
But that was it for one B-17 and one B-24.
“I just reacted to the situation,” Mayer said.
“I’m not a better pilot than anyone else. The almighty had a lot to do with it.”
Mayer had lost his hat in the landing.
While he was writing his report, he was confronted by one unhappy P-51 pilot and a Belgian steamroller operator who returned Mayer’s hat to him.
It had been Mayer’s 21st bombing mission. He had already had to bail out twice during previous missions. He would fly 10 more before his part of World War II was over. He went on to fly B-29s on combat missions out of Okinawa during the Korean War, and he also is a veteran of the Vietnam War.
He retired from the Air Force at Fairchild in 1966.
The Distinguished Flying Cross will take its place alongside Mayer’s Purple Heart, an Air Medal with several oak leaf clusters and “a bunch of commendation medals.”
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