Lawley was sent to fly and fight over the skies of occupied Europe and Nazi Germany with the 364th Bombardment Squadron of the 305th Bombardment Group (Heavy) of the United States Army Air Forces stationed at RAF Chelveston in England. They flew the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. The group's motto was, "Can Do."
By the morning of February 20, 1944, then-First Lieutenant Lawley had completed ten combat missions and was an aircraft commander. That day, he and his crew boarded a brand-new B-17G never before used in combat.
As Lawley and crew approached their target in Germany, the bomber formation was beset by a determined Nazi fighter attack. The aircraft was severely damaged and couldn't maintain formation. Lawley himself had been wounded in the attack and his co-pilot was killed with his lifeless body wedged against the control column.
The B-17 was entering a fatal dive as Lawley managed to pull his dead comrade back from the controls in time to save the plane and crew. The situation seemed hopeless, and Lawley gave his crew the signal to bail out. One of the others informed his commander that two of their crew were alive, but too hurt to survive abandoning the plane. Rather than leave his men to a certain death, Lieutenant Lawley resolved to bring his ship and his men home, and well, his citation for the Medal of Honor can tell the story better than I.
From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (G-L):
|Photo from Together We Served|
Rank and organization: First Lieutenant, U.S. Army Air Corps, 364th Bomber Squadron, 305th Bomber Group. Place and date: Over Europe, 20 February 1944 (Air Mission). Entered service at: Birmingham, Ala. G.O. No.: 64, 8 August 1944.
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 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 1st Lt. 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. 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.
"Can Do," indeed.
After recovering from his own wounds, Lawley flew a further four combat missions before being returned to the United States for public relations duties on the home front, a common outcome then for Medal of Honor recipients. He remained in uniform after the war, transitioned to the United States Air Force in 1947, and retired with the rank of Colonel after thirty years of service to our nation in 1972.
The present day descendant of the 305th BG(H) is the 305th Operations Group of the 305th Air Mobility Wing. The wing's home station is Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, and they are equipped with both the McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender and the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III. The 364th Bombardment Squadron was last an active unit in 1975.
William R. Lawley, Jr. passed away at age 78 on May 29, 1999 due to pneumonia complications. He was laid to rest in his native Alabama at the Greenwood Cemetery in Montgomery. Not long before his death, Lawley was visited by one of the crewmates he saved that day in February 1944. Ralph Braswell, a gunner, recalled: ''He had arthritis,'' Mr. Braswell remembered, ''but after I shook his hands, I said, 'They're beautiful. They saved my life.' ''
Two other American airmen also earned the Medal of Honor that same day in 1944; don't miss their story!