Four months after the Allies landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944, the Germans had been driven from most of northern France. Then one sector of the advance stalled in front of massive fortifications at and near Metz in northeastern France, about 30 miles from the German border. After a month of preparation, the US Third Army crossed the Moselle River on Nov. 9 in an offensive aimed at taking Metz. Eighth Air Force B-17s of the 452d Bombardment Group based at Deopham Green, England, were called on to support the offensive by blasting forts at Metz and Thionville.
One of the group’s bombers, a B-17G named Lady Janet, was piloted by 21-year-old 1st Lt. Donald Gott, flying his 27th mission since joining the 452d in early August. His copilot, 2d Lt. William Metzger, a year older than Gott, had been with the group about a month.
That day, as was often the case, weather in the UK was foul and was even worse over the target area. Unable to bomb its primary targets, the 452d was diverted to a secondary–the marshaling yards at Saarbruecken, Germany, some 40 miles east of Metz. Shortly before reaching that city, the group was hammered by a barrage of flak.
Two B-17s went down, and three of Lady Janet’s engines took direct hits. No. 1 caught fire; its propeller couldn’t be feathered. No. 2 was smoking heavily and losing power. No. 4 was sheathed in flame that streamed back to the tail. The intercom was knocked out, flares had been ignited, hydraulic fluid was gushing from damaged lines, the flight engineer was wounded in the leg, and one of the radio operator’s arms had been severed below the elbow.
While Gott fought to control the crippled B-17, copilot Metzger left his seat to apply a tourniquet to the unconscious radio operator’s arm. Returning to the cockpit, he told Gott that the man probably could not survive a bailout over enemy country, where medical aid might be long in coming. In any event, they had no static line that would pull the ripcord if he were dropped from the doomed aircraft.
They decided to jettison their bombs, turn back toward friendly territory only a few miles to the west, and there order the able members of the crew to bail out. Rather than abandon the gravely wounded radio operator, Gott and Metzger would attempt a crash landing.
With two engines afire and a third running intermittently at reduced power, keeping Lady Janet airborne for the few minutes needed to reach the Allied lines was a dicey proposition. Their worst worry, however, was an explosion. The right wing was engulfed in flame, and hydraulic fluid had been ignited in the fuselage by the burning flares. Nevertheless, Gott and Metzger had agreed not to abandon the radio operator, and they were prepared to live or die with that decision.
Despite the beating it had taken, the tough Boeing Fortress held together until they were over liberated France once more. Gott told Metzger to go through the aircraft and tell each crew member to bail out. Two had already jumped. The others were ready to go except one gunner, whose chute had been torn by flak. Metzger gave the man his own chute and joined Gott on the flight deck.
As they broke through the clouds, Gott saw an open field and turned into it. There was no time to search for an ideal crash site. With only one engine operating normally, he and Metzger started their approach. Both men knew that the impact of a crash landing would likely rupture the overstressed tanks in the flame-enshrouded right wing with the result totally predictable. But the war had seen many miracles. Maybe this was their day.
It was not. Witnesses said that at about 100 feet the bomber exploded. There were no survivors.
Gott and Metzger were awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. The citations for both ended with these words: “[His] loyalty to his crew … and his deed of knowingly performing what may have been his last service to his country were an example of valor at its highest.” By their self-sacrifice for a fellow airman, two heroic young pilots added another strand to the seamless web of Air Force tradition.
Published June 1989. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.