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Airman Honored for World War II Heroism

Times Staff Writer

Six decades after World War II, a Beverly Hills psychoanalyst was recognized Friday for saving the life of his pilot during a bombing raid on the day before D-Day in the skies above France.

Bernard W. Bail, 85, received the Distinguished Service Cross from Vice President Dick Cheney in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

The pilot, Lt. Col. Leon Vance Jr., was awarded the Medal of Honor for successfully ditching the damaged plane in the English Channel and avoiding a village. But Vance’s account of Bail’s emergency treatment of his shattered leg was lost for decades after Vance died on another flight.

“Every such occasion is a special occasion and one to remember because it places me in the company of a brave American who elevated service to the country above self-interest,” Cheney said. “This moment is special because it is so very long delayed.”

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Bail became visibly emotional during the vice president’s remarks, shedding a few tears behind his aviator glasses.

“It was an overwhelming experience, and I was thrilled to be in the White House with all my family and friends,” Bail said.

On June 5, 1944, 1st Lt. Bail was lead radar navigator for a group of B-24 bombers en route to a Nazi V-1/V-2 rocket site in the Boulogne-Sur-Mer region of France. He and Vance, the mission commander, were in the lead plane.

Bail’s aircraft failed to drop its bomb payload and Vance ordered another pass over the site. On the second flyover, their plane was hit by German anti-aircraft fire and Vance suffered a severe leg injury.

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Bail applied a makeshift tourniquet from his flight suit to Vance’s leg. The pilot was then able to take control of the badly crippled plane, still carrying a 500-pound bomb that had failed to drop, and ordered Bail and the other crew members to parachute to safety.

“I was thinking ‘Could I really save this man?’ and I was wondering how long this plane could stay in the air,” Bail recalled Friday. Vance set the crippled bomber down in the channel to avoid hitting an English village, and the mission came to be known as the “Vance mission.”

Bail later earned the Air Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross, with two oak leaf clusters, as a navigator on 25 missions. On his final mission, his plane was shot down and he was taken prisoner by the Germans.

Before Vance died in a hospital plane that was lost over the Atlantic, he was interviewed by the BBC and credited Bail with saving his life. He said he would recommend Bail for a medal.

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Bail, a Philadelphia native, attended college after the war and moved to California.

He has been practicing as a psychoanalyst in Beverly Hills for 50 years.

Bail said he believes he didn’t receive the medal before “because the only person who could have given me a medal was lost.”

In 2004, Bail learned that another member of his outfit had received long overdue awards, and he contacted the 44th Bomb Group Veterans Assn. Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Spencer S. Hunn recommended him for the Distinguished Service Cross.

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“I was delighted ... I would say, ecstatic,” Bail said after the ceremony. “It reinforced my faith in the greatness of this country.”

The Distinguished Service Cross is the military’s second-highest honor after the Medal of Honor.


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