Two determined teenagers fight to have two War World II veterans awarded Silver Stars that were 50 years overdue
For Charles and Vicki Gaylord, their most memorable civics lesson didn’t involve a textbook or a classroom. It was taught through a friendship forged by modern technology, a 60-year-old air battle, and a determination that resulted in Silver Star medals for two World War II veterans.
The Breckinridge County siblings began their lesson five years ago with a model plane and attention to detail. Along the way, it included a personal plea to a U.S. congressman and writing letters to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the White House.
It began with Charles, who enjoyed building model airplanes, agreeing in 1999 to build a replica of a World War II B-24 for a teacher. “He wanted more information on what the inside of the plane looked like, so he got on a Web site for the Jolly Rogers, a unit who flew B-24s in World War II,” explains sister Vicki, now a sophomore at Western Kentucky University. Charles posted an e-mail message and the next day a response came from Ray Smeltzer, who lived near St. Louis, Missouri. It was the first of many and the beginning of a friendship that eventually included the entire Gaylord family—Charles, Vicki, and their parents, Bruce and Anna Mary.
They received firsthand accounts of life in World War II and service in the Army Air Corps. It was through the e-mails that the Gaylords first heard the story of Roarin’ Rosie and her heroic mission in January 1943.
1943: The South Pacific
Smeltzer and his crew had flown a reconnaissance mission over Ambon Island, in the South Pacific. They discovered three Japanese transport ships suspected of carrying ammunition. The next day, January 21, 1943, a bombing mission was mounted that included three B-24Ds from the 90th Bombardment group.
Sgt. Smeltzer was on a plane piloted by Lt. Alden Currie, and Lt. James Case was its bombardier. The crew dropped their bombs and successfully sank one of the Japanese ships. Currie’s crew safely made their way out of the harbor, even though they had been hit by anti-aircraft fire. They were headed back to their base when they heard over the radio, and were notified by the tail and waist gunners, that the other bombers were drawing fire from Japanese fighters.
According to Smeltzer, one crewman on another plane had been killed and both planes had sustained serious damage. “With total disregard for his safety or that of his crew and his aircraft’s assumed safety, (Currie) brought his plane around to engage the enemy and try to give some relief to the other bombers,” wrote Smeltzer and crewman Case in their account of the mission.
“By swinging around and coming back, this put his plane as a straggler in the formation trying to leave Ambon air space…Thus we were now the sitting duck. The Japanese rather quickly broke off their engagement with the now front two bombers, and directed their total undivided attention on us.”
Lt. Case’s responsibility, after the bombs had been dropped, was to man one of the nose 50-caliber machine guns. Sgt. Smeltzer ran ammo to the gunners. “For the next 30 minutes, we battled the Japanese fighters in a running air battle out over the sea as we tried to make our way home…When the Japanese broke off contact and Roarin’ Rosie finally pulled away, the plane had over 100 bullet and cannon holes in the air frame, had lost the tail gun and the number-two engine. Also, a Japanese fighter had been downed. Due to our efforts, all three B-24s were able to return to their bases with only one fatality.”
As a result of their service in the South Pacific, the crew of Roarin’ Rosie was recommended for the Distinguished Flying Cross, for a separate action. Smeltzer, who was wounded in action, thought he might also be eligible for the Purple Heart. Just as he began to inquire about the other medal, their enlistment was up. “They just said, ‘Let’s forget the medals, and let’s go home,’” Vicki says.
Fifty Years Later
Almost 50 years passed, with Smeltzer and Case, living in Oklahoma, as the only two surviving crew members left from the 1943 mission. In 1990, Smeltzer received a shoebox of World War II records and memorabilia from pilot Lt. Alden Currie’s widow.
Stuffed in the box was a recommendation for the Silver Star from the commander of one of the B-24s saved by the Roarin’ Rosie.
When the Gaylords heard their story, Vicki and Charles wanted to help the aging veterans get the recognition they earned.
In 2001, the family contacted Congressman Ron Lewis’ office and supplied information on the mission and details of the veterans’ military service. “Someone had told us that was how you go about getting the medals,” Bruce Gaylord explains, “that you had to go through a congressman’s office.”
The information was forwarded to the military’s National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. Because the men served in the Army Air Corps, which later became the Air Force, the information was then sent to the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Directorate in Philadelphia, where it was processed and a decision made on the medals. Just before Sept. 11, 2001, Smeltzer received word he had been awarded the Silver Star, but strangely, Case was notified he would be awarded the Bronze Star.
Smeltzer received his award on his 82nd birthday in January 2002, and Vicki was determined to see that Case received the same.
“They were in the same plane, they were on the same mission,” Vicki explains, “and according to the medal requirements, the Bronze Star isn’t even awarded for air missions.”
While a junior in high school, she was selected to attend the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperative’s Washington Youth Tour. During her visit to Washington, D.C., Vicki was more determined than ever upon hearing news of this latest refusal. So she courageously took the opportunity to personally ask Congressman Lewis for help with an appeal on the Bronze Star.
The family later appealed the decision, but once again, Case was notified he would be receiving the Bronze Star.
“We got a letter from Mr. Case and he said that he wasn’t upset about this latest turn-down for the award,” Bruce Gaylord says about the process. “He felt that he was one of the luckiest persons alive, just to have survived his nine months of service in the South Pacific and the completion of 30 combat missions. He said that he was no hero, the guys who didn’t come back were the real heroes.”
Bruce suggested that the teenagers write to high-ranking government officials and tell them the story of Roarin’ Rosie. They mailed letters to President George W. Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Gen. Richard B. Meyers, the Commanding Officer of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Meyers sent a personal letter in December 2002, telling the family that he had forwarded the information to the Air Force Personnel Center at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas. And in February 2003, Case received a letter from Col. Marcia Rossi notifying him that he would receive his Silver Star.
May 7, 2003: Case Awarded Silver Star
It arrived at his home on May 7, 2003, and Case sent this note to the Gaylords: “There are very few people, if any, who would go the full mile and you have overcome the obstacles thrown in your way. It is, of course, very hard for most of us to understand that busy people like you would go to this trouble to help this perfect stranger. My wife and our three sons (and their families) are aware of the honor involved in receiving this medal and join me in our gratitude to all of you.”
A few months later, in October 2003, his crewmate Ray Smeltzer passed away.
Bruce Gaylord says he was glad his children had the opportunity to get to know two such unassuming, gallant men. “They also learned, never give up, keep trying and there is a willing ear to hear your plight and help you resolve your issue,” he adds. “It was a lesson in civics they would never have gotten in school.”
SILVER STAR INDIVIDUAL DECORATION
The Silver Star was established by Action of Congress July 9, 1918. It is awarded to a person who, while serving in any capacity with the U.S. Army, is cited for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force, or while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party. The required gallantry must have been performed with marked distinction.