William R. Lawley earned America’s highest decoration at the controls of the legendary B-17 Flying Fortress over occupied Europe. Born in Leeds, Alabama, he began his Air Force career as a private and quickly became an Aviation Cadet. Upon graduating from flying school, he volunteered for bombers and was assigned to the 364th Squadron, Eighth Air Force, in November 1943. Lieutenant Lawley flew his first combat mission the following month and completed eight others prior to his heroic effort on 20 February 1944, the first day of operation “Big Week.”
His target on this day was a Messerschmitt assembly plant at Leipzig, deep inside the heart of Germany. After encountering heavy flak enroute to the target, Lawley began his bomb run and discovered his bombs would not release due to frozen bomb racks. Each time the bomb bay doors opened, the aircraft fell behind the lighter and now faster formation. Lacking the mutual support of the other B-17s, his plane soon fell prey to Luftwaffe fire as 20 fighters attacked. Suddenly, the bomber’s cockpit erupted in a blur of shattered glass and blood. The copilot, killed instantly, slumped over the control column and forced the bomber into a steep descent.
Lawley, seriously wounded and bleeding profusely, retarded the throttles and recovered the stricken aircraft. With virtually no forward visibility, severely damaged flight controls, and a raging engine fire, he ordered the crew to bail out. His bombardier brought back word that eight of the crewmembers were wounded and two could not use their parachutes. Lawley saw no option but to attempt to fly back to England. The 5-hour return was racked with enemy fighters, flak, and more engine problems. Lawley finally collapsed from shock and loss of blood, but was revived and again took the controls. With one engine feathered, another windmilling, and a third on fire, he fought desperately for altitude.
Against all odds, he brought the crippled plane in for a belly landing at a fighter strip south of London. All of the wounded, whom he had refused to abandon, survived the ordeal. In August 1944, he was ordered to Headquarters Army Air Force and awarded the Medal of Honor by General “Tooey” Spaatz. After the war, his distinguished career included duty as aide to General Muir S. Fairchild, command of the 55th Air Refueling Squadron, and air attached assignments to Brazil and the Philippines. Colonel Lawley retired in 1972.