Valor Friday

| September 24, 2021

Second Lieutenant Robert Femoyer

Robert Femoyer would receive the Medal of Honor for his final heroic act. He is one of only ten men who received the honor who were Eagle Scouts. He is also the only navigator to have received the honor, let’s explore what he did.

Born in Huntington, West Virginia, on Halloween in 1921, he attended Virginia Tech for college classes beginning in 1940. When the US entered World War II, he joined the Army Enlisted Reserve Corps on Armistice Day (11 November) 1942. He was called to active duty in February of the following year and enlisted as a private into the Army’s Air Forces.

After going through basic training and aircrew training, Femoyer started aviation cadet training with the intent to become a pilot. While he failed to qualify at pilot training, he was moved into the navigator training pipeline. This was quite common. If for some reason piloting didn’t work out, the Army retained their skills in an adjacent, and also much needed, job like navigator or bombardier.

Navigator’s Badge

Graduating gunnery school (all positions on a bomber except for pilot required manning a defensive .50-caliber machine gun during points of the mission) he was commissioned a second lieutenant and was posted to the 711th Bombardment Squadron of the 447th Bomb Group (Heavy) which flew the venerable B-17 Flying Fortresses.

The 711th Bombardment Squadron had commenced European combat operations in December 1943. While Femoyer wouldn’t arrive to his new unit until September 1944, the squadron had already bombed V-1 flying bomb launch sites, submarine pens, and supported both Operation Overlord (D-Day) and Operation Cobra (the breakout from the D-Day beachhead at Saint Lo, France).

42-38052 “Lucky Stehley Boy”

On November 2nd 1944, on just his fifth mission and only three days after his 23rd birthday, Femoyer was serving as navigator aboard “Lucky Stehley Boy”, a B-17G with tail number 42-38052. They were to bomb an oil refinery outside Merseberg, Germany.

The mission was massive, as many were at the time. The Eighth Air Force saw huge bombing operations deep into German-held territory as they sought to decimate the German war machine and bring about unconditional surrender to end the war. Setting off with Femoyer were 638 B-17 heavy bombers, escorted by 642 P-51 Mustang and P-38 Lightning fighters, crewed by more than 7,000 airmen, and carrying some 2.8 million pounds of bombs on just this one day’s raid.

The fuel factory (Leunawerk) they were targeting was one of the most heavily defending in all of Germany. More than 1,700 88mm and 105mm anti-aircraft guns protected the refinery, which was making much need aviation gasoline from coal. According the the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, “Aircrews viewed a mission to Leuna as the most dangerous and difficult assignment of the air war.”

B-17s over Merseberg, Germany (1944 or 1945)

As the massive bomber formation arrived over Merseberg, they were under “intense” flak fire for 18 minutes and “heavy” anti-aircraft fire for a further 30. One pilot described the flak like this;

When I describe the flak over Leuna as a cloud, I don’t mean just a wall of smoke; it was a box, the length, width, and depth of our route to the ‘bombs away’ point.

After the flak, they were attacked by a record 700 German Luftwaffe fighters, including the new Me-262 jets.

Femoyer’s aircraft was hit three times by flak shells, they had two of their four engines damaged, were losing altitude and speed, and Femoyer himself was critically wounded in his side and back. Flak had raked up and down his body, much of it remaining inside him.

Their aircraft falling out of formation and becoming a prime target for enemy fighters, Femoyer’s pilot decided to turn back. He called to his navigator for a route home. As his comrades saw Femoyer’s many wounds, they prepared to give him morphine for pain. Determined to keep a clear head and get his men home safely, Femoyer refused the sedative.

Unable to even sit up himself, Femoyer asked to be propped up near his station so he could read his charts and instruments. Losing copious amounts of blood and in pain described as “almost beyond the realm of human endurance” he remained at his post.

For two and a half hours, Femoyer, through his excruciating pain, guided his lone bomber around all enemy strongholds. By his actions, the aircraft was able to avoid further enemy detection, completely avoiding any more flak fire or attack from German fighters.

Only once his plane was over the English Channel did Femoyer consider them “safe.” Only then did he accept the morphine. The aircraft safely landed, with all hands, but tragically the brave and determined Femoyer died within an hour of being removed from the plane.

Femoyer received the Medal of Honor posthumously. He was also honored by his alma mater Virginia Tech with a residence hall in his name in 1949. Femoyer Hall is now an academic building, part of which houses the school’s Naval ROTC program.

As I said at the top, 2nd Lt Femoyer is the only rated navigator to have received the Medal of Honor. We have talked previously about a man who also received a posthumous Medal of Honor while serving as navigator aboard “Old 666”, but 2nd Lt Sarnoski was a rated bombardier.

Boeing B-17G 42-38052 moments before crashing, 27 March 1945

Boeing B-17G 42-38052 after crashing, 27 March 1945

Femoyer’s aircraft would be repaired and return to the skies. It would crash land on 27 March 1945 when its left landing gear failed to deploy. Repaired again, it survived the war, returning to the US after VE Day. In the post-war draw down of equipment it was sent to the wreckers on 8 November 1945. Almost exactly one year to the day after Femoyer valiantly navigated the Flying Fortress and her crew to safety.

Category: Air Force, Army, Historical, Medal of Honor, Valor, We Remember

Comments (8)

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  1. KoB says:

    “…no greater love…” And “…That such men lived…” Now let’s think about it for a minute. If Lt. Femoyer had of let the crew try to bandage him up somewhat and make him more comfortable for the attempted flight back, he may have survived his wounds. BZ Good Sir!

    Great Story Mason, again. The sheer numbers that were used to defeat tyranny during that time frame is amazing sometimes. And the bravery of the men among those numbers.

  2. Green Thumb says:

    Hardcore.

  3. 2banana says:

    In today’s computer and GPS world, no one appreciates how hard it is to know where you are, where you are going, how to get there and do you have enough gas…all by a map, compass and math.

    The Chinese are going to teach us this valuable skill again.

  4. President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH Neanderthal B Woodman Domestic Violent Extremist SuperStraight says:

    WHAT!? An Army Air Corps officer has a building named after him, that houses a NAVAL ROTC?! Oh, the shame! (wink)
    As a brother-in-arms, I can pull legs a little bit here and there. GABN!
    That such men lived……
    Too bad he didn’t live long enough to pass those Big Brass Balls genes on to another generation.

  5. AW1Ed says:

    Hand Salute. Ready, Two!
    Thanks once again, Mason.

  6. Jay says:

    I will be damned. He is laid to rest in my hometown of Jacksonville Florida and I never knew it…..I know where I will be stopping next time I’m in town.

  7. Mike B USAF Retired says:

    The Ops building of the 711th SOS at Duke Field, Florida was named for him. His Medal of Honor, the citation and the telegram informing his family of his death was in a display case just outside my office. During a remodel it was moved don’t know where it went from there. Somewhere in all my files I have a picture of it.

    Here’s a link from when I was trying to research information on the aircraft he was in, at the time I couldn’t verify a tail number or if the aircraft was named.

    http://warbirdinformationexchange.org/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=19206&hilit=Robert+Femoyer

    From my records, word for word what the citation reads.

    FEMOYER, ROBERT E.

    (Air Mission)

    Rank and organization: Second Lieutenant, 711th Bombing Squadron, 447th Bomber Group, U.S. Army Air Corps.

    Place and date: Over Merseburg, Germany, 2 November 1944.

    Entered service at: Jacksonville, Fla.

    Born: 31 October 1921, Huntington, W. Va.

    G.O. No.: 35, 9 May 1945.

    Citation:

    For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty near Merseburg, Germany, on 2 November 1944. While on a mission, the bomber, of which 2d Lt. Femoyer was the navigator, was struck by 3 enemy antiaircraft shells. The plane suffered serious damage and 2d Lt. Femoyer was severely wounded in the side and back by shell fragments which penetrated his body. In spite of extreme pain and great loss of blood he refused an offered injection of morphine. He was determined to keep his mental faculties clear in order that he might direct his plane out of danger and so save his comrades. Not being able to arise from the floor, he asked to be propped up in order to enable him to see his charts and instruments. He successfully directed the navigation of his lone bomber for 2 1/2 hours so well it avoided enemy flak and returned to the field without further damage. Only when the plane had arrived in the safe area over the English Channel did he feel that he had accomplished his objective; then, and only then, he permitted an injection of a sedative. He died shortly after being removed from the plane. The heroism and self-sacrifice of 2d Lt. Femoyer are in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Army.