WWII bomber crew members awarded Distinguished Flying Cross

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. J.G. Buzanowski
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs
It was a warm summer morning when the crew of the Flak Man, a B-24 Liberator, joined other bombers and their escort fighters on a daring mission. They flew from Pantanella, Italy, and played a key role in the bombing of oil refineries 700 miles away near Ploesti, Romania. The location was of strategic importance -- Nazi Germany got 60 percent of their petroleum from the plants there.

En route, there was heavy resistance from the Luftwaffe in the air and from anti-aircraft fire on the ground. But despite heavy damage to the Flak Man, the crew was able to successfully deliver their munitions and returned to Italy, their mission complete and instrumental to halting the Nazi war machine.

The next morning, the crew was sent out again, but the Flak Man was too damaged to fly. The crew instead went out in the Black Fox, a B-24 so similar to their beloved Flak Man, they hardly noticed the difference. On the way to their target in Austria, the Black Fox was shot down, killing one of the crew, Tech. Sgt. William Magill. The others were held as prisoners until the end of the war.

In a ceremony on Capitol Hill April 24, the crew of the Flak Man was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for their role in the Ploesti mission 63 years ago. The three living members of the original crew were on hand for the event, while representatives for the others accepted their medals. The honorees were:

-- 1st Lt. James E. Jatho
-- 1st Lt. Edward L. "Mac" McNally
-- 2nd Lt. Theodore D. Bell
-- 2nd Lt. George N. Croft
-- Tech. Sgt. Jay T. Fish
-- Tech. Sgt. William A. Magill
-- Staff Sgt. Frank G. Celuck
-- Staff Sgt. Robert D. Speed
-- Staff Sgt. Daniel P Toomey

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley and Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., awarded the DFCs and presented them all with American flags that had been flown over the Capitol.

"This is the legacy of today's Air Force and a sign of what young Americans are all about," General Moseley said. "They walked in the footsteps of Airmen before them just as they paved the way for us. Today's Airmen stand on the shoulders of giants and it's my honor to present these American heroes with the Distinguished Flying Cross."

The flight to properly recognize the Flak Man crew began at a reunion almost 10 years ago. Lieutenant Edward "Mac" McNally, the crew's bombardier, had heard one member of the crew had possibly been awarded the DFC.

But it was unknown if the award was for the entire team, so Lieutenant McNally launched a campaign for his crew to find out one way or another. He wrote letters to elected officials as well as Air Force leaders, but no records could be found detailing the DFC being awarded to any member of the Flak Man.

The former lieutenant had all but given up. But his family took up his plight, and his sons' requests finally reached the desks of General Moseley and Congressman Young.

"They worked together and did the right thing in honoring this crew," Lieutenant McNally said. "I can't tell you how grateful we are in what they've done for us. We're veterans of another generation and when the Air Force called to say we were being awarded the DFC, I was excited and nervous all at once ... and very, very thankful."

Surrounded by more than 100 friends and family members, the three living crew members, Lieutenant McNally, Tech. Sgt. Jay T. Fish and Staff Sgt. Robert D. Speed as well as representatives for the deceased Airmen began the day at the Air Force Memorial, which honors the sacrifices of Airmen past. Beneath its three curved spires, the Air Force Honor Guard set a wreath of remembrance for the Flak Man crew.

"It's an impressive site," said Sergeant Fish, the flight engineer for the Flak Man. "So many people put their lives on the line during wartime, and this is a great tribute to them."

Afterwards, the group went to the World War II Memorial, where family members searched the records for names they knew. They then visited House Armed Services Committee hearing room on Capitol Hill for the award ceremony.

"Honoring our past reinforces today's warfighting ethos," General Moseley told the crowd. "Today, for example, we have bombers over Afghanistan 24 hours a day, seven days a week to help ground forces fight the enemy, just like these Airmen did 63 years ago."

Humbled, yet proud, Mr. McNally also spoke to the crowd.

"Most Air Force members don't care if they ever get a medal or not," he said. "But should the Air Force see fit to honor me, I will not disdain it. I will cherish it."

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