MEDAL OF HONOR RECIPIENT– On February 20, 1944, Lieutenant William Lawley emergency landed his B-17 despite his own serious life-threatening injuries, saving injured crew members.
William “Bill” Robert Lawley, Jr. was born in Leeds, Alabama on 23 August 1920. In 1938, he graduated from high school in Leeds. Lawley enlisted in the US Army Air Forces on 9 April 1942 and received his pilot’s wings and Second Lieutenant’s commission.
Bill Lawley joined the 305th Bomb Group, 364th Squadron in November 1943 and was soon flying combat sorties over Europe. In February 1944, the 305th Bomb Group participated in Big Week, a series of raids on the German aircraft industry. On 20 February 1944, Lawley flew one of the group’s B-17s on a bombing raid of the Messerschmitt factory at Leizig.
German fighters hit the 305th almost as soon as it cleared the target area. Lawley’s plane was hit and fell out of formation with its co-pilot having been killed and eight crew members, including Lawley, badly wounded.
MEDAL OF HONOR CITATION:
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 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 1st Lt. 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, 1 of the waist gunners informed the pilot that 2 crew members 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 crew members 1st Lt. Lawley elected to remain with the ship and bring them to safety if it was humanly possible, giving the other crew members 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. 1st Lt. 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 1 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, 1st Lt. Lawley rendered outstanding distinguished and valorous service to our Nation.
Bill Lawley flew 14 combat missions before he was reassigned in June 1944. He returned to the United States in September 1944 where he remained in the Air Force and served in a variety of staff and command positions throughout his thirty year career. He was Assistant Air Attaché at the US Embassy in Brazil from 1951 to 1954 and commanded the 55th Air Refueling Squadron at Forbes AFB from 1955 to 1959. He attended the Air War College at Maxwell AFB and served on the school’s faculty. From 1965 to 1968, Lawley was the Air Attaché and then the Defense Attaché for the US Embassy in the Republic of the Philippines. In 1968, he assumed command of the 3825th Academic Support Group at Maxwell and served there until his retirement in 1972.
Bill Lawley passed on Memorial Day, 30 May 1999. He was survived by his wife, Amelia, and his three children, Susan Decker, Anne Sheftic, and William R. Lawley, III.
Lt. Lawley’s Medal of Honor, flight jacket and dog tags are on exhibit in the museum’s Hall of Valor exhibit.