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Diver’s find in sunken wreckage of bomber could lead to recognition of WWII veteran’s valor

Boeing B-17E. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Even at 96, Armand Sedgeley recalls long-ago events with the clarity of the raw, 22-year-old Army airman he was on the day he fell from the sky over Italy.

Sedgeley, who lives in a Lakewood retirement community, never sought recognition for his actions during World War II, when the B-17 “Flying Fortress,” on which he served as bombardier, succumbed to enemy attack. But now — 74 years later — he finds himself awaiting word on whether he will receive a Silver Star, the third-highest medal for valor in combat.

“It definitely would be meaningful,” Sedgeley said, noting that his four sons, three grandchildren and one great-grandchild would look with pride on the honor. It also would have meant a lot to his wife, Anne, who died in February.

If the award comes through, it would be the result of an unlikely chain of events that sparked a stranger’s decades-long advocacy. A discovery by a marine biologist in the Mediterranean Sea off the island of Corsica, where Sedgeley’s B-17 bomber had to ditch when it was crippled by German fighter plane fire, spurred that man’s interest in the plane and its crew.

John Fine, an experienced diver, lawyer and former diplomat, had become familiar with the sunken wreckage of the bomber in 1992 as he tracked coral growth off Corsica. A New York native who also spends time in Florida, he was shooting a motion picture when, having exhausted his supply of film, he began exploring the fuselage, which was submerged about 120 feet below the water’s surface.

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He knew some of the history surrounding the site. Local fishermen weren’t sure if there had been any survivors, but some commercial divers had found human remains and military authorities removed them. But this time — amid a cloud of silt caused by his fanning the floor of the aircraft while his air bubbles loosened debris on the ceiling — something swirled up before him. He grabbed and missed.

“Then I fan again,” Fine recalled, “and this thing comes up in the water, and I grab it. I could see it when I held it close to my mask: It said ‘R.H. Householder,’ with a Colorado address. It was a dog tag.”

He took it to the surface and decided to see if Householder, who was from Wellington, had survived — or if anyone survived — “with the idea in mind of having a memorial service at some time in the future for the men who lost their lives.”

That idea became a full-fledged cause when, soon after his dive, he met with renowned French diving colleagues Philippe Tailliez and Jacques-Yves Cousteau. He reached into his pocket and unwound the paper he had wrapped around the dog tag to protect it.

“I hold it up to Jacques-Yves Cousteau,” Fine recounted. “He says, ‘C’est miracle!’ I was convinced then that something had to be done. I got back to the U.S., and at that point I began my research.”

* * *

Growing up in rural Maine, young Armand Sedgeley had little opportunity to see aircraft beyond the once or twice that barnstormers landed in a farmer’s field and offered rides. But his interest led him to purchase model airplane kits and, some years later, join the ROTC and learn about the fledgling Army Air Corps.

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Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Sedgeley and five of his friends ventured to Portland to take exams that would qualify them to become aviation cadets. They all passed.

When he reported to the air base at Montgomery, Ala., he underwent further tests that sorted 100 cadets into three skill groups: pilot, navigator or bombardier. He was one of 10 assigned to be bombardiers.

“I thought everybody would be a pilot,” Sedgeley said.

After pre-flight training in Houston and bomb training in San Angelo, Texas, he was given his commission in January 1942. He went through gunnery training — a skill that would come into play later — and eventually was assigned to the 97th Bomber Group.

They flew missions predominantly to German-held targets in Italy, though occasionally hit Germany and southern France. As their aircraft experienced more and more mechanical issues, they also found themselves assigned to a new B-17 model, which performed much better on its first two missions.

“But on the third mission,” Sedgeley said, “all hell broke loose.”

On Feb. 14, 1944, trouble began on the flight to the Italian city of Verona, where the bomber group would target enemy supplies in boxcars at a railroad marshaling yard. When crew members tested the plane’s machine guns, the tail gunner reported that his wouldn’t fire, making the plane vulnerable to a rear attack.

When four German fighter planes descended on the bombers, they homed in on Sedgeley’s aircraft, which flew on the right outside edge of the formation as the planes banked left to correct their attack angle. The maneuver essentially isolated the aircraft and made it an inviting target. Sedgeley released the bombs so they wouldn’t detonate if struck by enemy fire.

Enemy cannon rounds battered the bomber’s engines and also killed three crew members — radio operator Householder, waist gunner Staff Sgt. George Murphy and tail gunner Staff Sgt. Tony Duca. Meanwhile, one of the German fighters approached along the bomber’s left side.

“They’d been firing to the rear of our plane, and (they) weren’t getting fire from the tail,” Sedgeley said. “After they did what they needed to do back there, this one thought that inasmuch as we were still flying, he decided to kill those of us in the front of the plane.”

From his position in the nose of the plane, Sedgeley opened fire with his .50-caliber twin turret guns. The navigator, 2nd Lt. Thomas Cowell, opened up with his single gun.

“Between the two of us,” Sedgeley recalled, “we destroyed the plane. There happened to be a cloud below us, and our pilot flew into it, so the fighters didn’t have visibility. And that’s how we got away.”

The fighters destroyed two portside engines and damaged one on the starboard side.

“As a result of that, we knew we’d have to go down,” Sedgeley said.

The closest friendly airfield was at a British fighter facility on the French island of Corsica, about 200 miles away. Fortunately, the plane was crippled at 20,000 feet and had a good glide angle. But as the plane approached the landing strip, the crew realized the runway wouldn’t be long enough to accommodate their huge aircraft.

“But we had to get down,” Sedgeley said. “So instead of landing, we flew over the water and ditched the plane.”

He positioned himself in the plane’s radio room, his back to the bulkhead and his arms raised. But when the plane came to a jarring halt in the Bay of Calvi, the force broke loose a table that crashed into Sedgeley, cracking his ribs.

As the plane rapidly took on water, the others who were still alive managed to surface and pile into a dinghy. Sedgeley, injured and underwater in the plane’s radio room, had the presence of mind to pull the air cartridge on his life vest.

“I just floated out,” he said, “and all the others were in the dinghy by the wing, waiting for me. I don’t know how, to this day, I was able to hold my breath that long. I have no recollection. But I did and was able to get out. Somehow, I was very fortunate.”

Those who saw the plane go down reported that it probably crashed and killed the crew. Sedgeley’s mother got a telegram saying her son was missing in action, even though all seven survivors had been picked up by British air-sea rescue not long after they had ditched. She had no telephone Sedgeley could call to relate his experience, and she hung a gold banner in the window of her house indicating a dead or missing service member had lived there.

Weeks later, when Sedgeley showed up at home, she was “more than surprised,” he said.

He had survived the ordeal. But within about two minutes after impact, the B-17 was sinking to the floor of the Mediterranean.

* * *

John Fine’s discovery of the dog tag in the fuselage of the B-17 ultimately allowed him to connect a crew to the plane lying at the bottom of the sea off Corsica. But initially, his research very quickly went nowhere.

“I tried everything,” Fine said. “Archives, nothing. U.S. Army, nothing. U.S. Air Force, no reply.”

About three years passed, and as Fine prepared to attend a film festival on Corsica, he received a phone call. An officer in the office of the secretary of the Air Force had been shredding some documents when he happened upon Fine’s letter seeking help tracking down the B-17’s crew.

Within three hours, Fine said, the officer had gotten back to him with the names of two survivors: the plane’s pilot, 2nd Lt. Frank Chaplick, and 2nd Lt. Armand Sedgeley, the bombardier. That quickly, Fine resolved to plan a ceremony at the site where the plane was ditched to honor those lost as well as those who survived.

Chaplick was ill and couldn’t attend. Sedgeley, who became a civil engineer and settled in Colorado after a business trip introduced him to the state, was enthusiastic, but he couldn’t afford the trip. United Airlines eventually stepped up with free airfare for him and one of his sons to attend the 1995 festivities.

Fine arranged the ceremony with French officials, “until it finally became a last World War II 50th anniversary commemorative celebration, and it was wonderful.” They went by steamship to the site of the crash and laid a wreath on the water. Fine sprinkled holy water given to him by the local archbishop. A bronze plaque commemorating the crew was later installed on some nearby cliffs.

“And that was it for a long time,” Fine said.

But he and Sedgeley remained in contact. When Fine learned that some others had received the Silver Star for their heroism in combat that day, he broached the subject. Sedgeley said his squadron leader had put him in for the honor, but it didn’t get approved — although two gunners among the crew were recognized. He heard no explanation.

“All I know is we all did our best and it was recognized by the squadron, but from there on, I have no information, and they can’t seem to locate the Silver Star orders,” Sedgeley said. “So it is a mystery. I don’t understand it.”

Unbeknown to Sedgeley until recently, Fine has pursued the honor on his behalf. He said that through archives and Sedgeley’s own flight diary, he discovered information that wouldn’t have been part of the original narrative — information that might trigger a reconsideration. “Busy commanders could not have had all the information available now or they surely would have awarded this 22-year-old hero his Silver Star,” he wrote in his appeal to government officials.

Fine said he sought help from Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner’s office to expedite the process, although Gardner’s spokesman said that policy prohibits commenting on such casework.

So now, they wait.

“I think it’s most unusual for a person to go to the expense he’s gone to, to get a medal without even being involved,” Sedgeley said. “I didn’t know he was doing it for a long time.”

But for Fine, the impact of seeing the wreckage and finding one man’s dog tag made this an irresistible quest.

“As I looked at the wreckage, I knew men have lost their lives there who were just out of their teens, men in their 20s,” Fine said. “Something had to be done. We can’t forget those that saved the world from fascism. We can’t forget them. I was determined that we would not forget them.”

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© 2018 The Denver Post

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