Oregon navigator helped return a busted B-17 to base

Lt. Lawrence DeLancey's crippled B-17 sits at the Nuthampstead airfield in England. One man was killed when this B-17 took a direct hit on Oct. 15, 1944 over Germany. <br><I>Photo made available by www.398th.org

SALEM - The gnarled mass of metal, wire and instruments on the nose of the B-17 Flying Fortress is a staggering sight.

Photographs show a machine gun dangling from the left cheek of the aircraft, which miraculously returned to is home base after being hit by a German 88 anti-aircraft shell.

Images like these are a reminder, as the nation observes Veterans Day, of the sacrifice and survival of those who have served and continue to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces.

One man was killed when that B-17 took a direct hit on Oct. 15, 1944 over Germany. Nine men survived, including the late Raymond J. LeDoux, a Mount Angel native and longtime Salem resident.

"I never heard that much about it until after he died," said son Gary LeDoux, who owns a local automotive shop. "He didn't like to talk about that stuff."

World War II veterans are known for rarely speaking of their valor and sacrifice and often are referred to as the humble heroes.

But there may have been an underlying reason why Ray LeDoux skirted the subject.

He was supposed to be in the togglier's seat that day, hunkered down in the nose of the plane. But the lieutenant had to fill in as navigator on that mission for the 601st Squadron of the 398th Bomb Group.

Sgt. George E. Abbott, assigned to take his place, was killed instantly when the shell pierced the nose of the plane and exploded.

As navigator, LeDoux was sitting not far behind Abbott. The blast knocked him unconscious for a moment, but he escaped serious injury. When he came to, he helped the pilot and co-pilot find their way home.

"He always wondered why he survived," Gary LeDoux said.

After the war, Ray LeDoux and his wife, Edna, made contact with Abbott's mother, Anna, and stayed in touch. They even named one of their boys George Abbott LeDoux, and Anna never missed sending a birthday card to her son's namesake.

George LeDoux, now 57 and a resident of Tualatin, has corresponded in recent years with Abbott's sister and nephew and learned a lot about the young man who served with his father.

"I've always been interested, being George Abbott's namesake," he said. "I named my son after him also."

George LeDoux has been involved for years with the 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association, attending reunions and getting to meet other members of the crew. He has visited the former air base at Nuthampstead, England, where his father served and the B-17 landed that day.

The mission from Nuthampstead began that day in the wee hours, and the target was Cologne, Germany.

"Cologne was a very heavily defended target, and they hit it a lot," George LeDoux said while looking at his father's mission log. "It was the fourth time they hit Cologne in a month, and they hit it the day before, too."

The crew of the 601st was led by pilot Lawrence DeLancey, who was from Corvallis.

When the B-17 was hit, the instrument panel all but disintegrated. Only the altimeter and magnetic compass still worked, according to DeLancey's published recollections, and he questioned their accuracy.

Part of the nose peeled back and obstructed the vision of Lt. DeLancey and his co-pilot. The radio was gone, the oxygen lines broken.

"All this complicated by the subzero temperature at 27,000 feet blasting into the cockpit," wrote Allen Ostrom, the editor of "398th Bomb Group Remembrances."

The pilots descended rapidly to about 2,000 feet, where they relied on LeDoux's expertise.

"It was just a great bit of navigation," DeLancey said in an article for the magazine Bomber Legends. "Ray just stood there on the flight deck and gave us the headings from memory."

Local newspapers called LeDoux a navigating genius for helping bring home an aircraft "so completely riddled by flak, the crew was virtually sitting on air." Many of the clippings are in a scrapbook kept by LeDoux's mother and now in the hands of Gary LeDoux.

DeLancey and Ray LeDoux were decorated for their valiant efforts. DeLancey was awarded the Silver Star and LeDoux the Distinguished Flying Cross.

George LeDoux has the cross and other medals his father earned. He also has the silk map that his father had in hand while guiding the plane home.

When it landed at Nuthampstead, one can only imagine the shock of seeing that crumpled nose. Photos of three different views are posted at www.398th.org.

Another photo of the damaged plane in flight is part of the U.S. Air Force Pre-1954 Official Still Photography Collection at the National Archives in College Park, Md. The collection was once on loan to the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum.

Melissa Keiser managed that collection when it was at the museum. She noted that there are many famous images from World War II that show similar battle damage.

"That one is very familiar, certainly one people have seen and heard of," said Keiser, the chief photo archivist at the museum. "I'd say it's in the top 10."

Ray LeDoux returned to the Salem area after the war and resumed his career as a mechanic. He and his wife had 11 children, including three boys who served in the military.

He lost an eye in a shop accident and later suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He died in 1989 at age 69.

Son Gary wound up working in the same field and has LeDoux's Auto Service.

A framed photo of his father's plane hangs on the wall in the office.

"I can remember as a kid people tried to talk to him about it," Gary LeDoux said. "But he never claimed to be anything."

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