U.S. forces participating in the campaigns based out of Great Britain demonstrated a remarkable level of courage, competence and sacrifice. Americans across all branches of service were exposed to wartime danger from the moment they shipped out. They demonstrated heroic and courageous acts crossing the treacherous Atlantic, in strategic bombing missions against the European Axis, and in the invasion of mainland Europe. This tour will visit the names and graves of nine individuals whose stories exemplify this courage and heroism.
Arizona T. Harris
369th Bombardment Squadron, 306th Bombardment Group, Heavy
Tech. Sgt. Arizona T. Harris is one of 18 men buried or memorialized at Cambridge American Cemetery to have received the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). It is awarded for extreme gallantry and risk of life in actual combat with an armed enemy force. It is the second-highest military decoration for a member of the U.S. Army, just under the Medal of Honor.
On January 4, 1943 Harris was the top turret gunner on a B-17 returning from a mission to the U-Boat yards at St. Nazaire, France. The plane had come under severe enemy fire. Two engines were knocked out and the bottom section of the nose was blown away. The bombardier and the navigator were lost. As the plane struggled to return home, 40 miles northwest of Brest, France it was attacked by six FW190s and ME109s. The pilot settled the plane onto the sea, and it soon became a strafing target for German fighters. A nearby B-17 reported that the guns in the upper turret were still blazing as the aircraft sank into the water. Harris continued to fight until he was completely consumed by the waves. For this act of heroism in the face of death, Harris was posthumously awarded the DSC.
Arizona T. Harris is memorialized on the Tablets of the Missing at Cambridge American Cemetery.
Leon R. Vance Jr.
Army Air Corps
Lt. Col. Leon R. Vance Jr., was command pilot of a heavy bomber on a mission to Wimeraux, France, on June 6, 1944. Approaching the target, his aircraft was hit repeatedly by anti-aircraft fire, seriously crippling the plane, killing the pilot, and wounding several members of the crew. Although seriously injured, Vance led his bomber over the target and then set course for England.
With the coast in sight, he ordered those aboard to bail out and prepared to follow. He then heard over the planes’ intercom a message indicating that one crewman, unable to jump due to injuries, still remained aboard. To avoid leaving a man behind, Vance decided to land the plane rather than bail out without the injured crewmember. He succeeded in doing so, and settled the bomber down into the water. An explosion then blew him clear of the sinking ship. He was picked up 50 minutes later by a rescue team, but the injured crewmember was never found.
By a cruel twist of fate, Vance’s air evacuation plane home to the United States disappeared without a trace on July 26, 1944.
Leon R. Vance Jr. is memorialized on the Tablets of the Missing at Cambridge American Cemetery.
Jack R. Warren
364th Fighter Squadron, 357th Fighter Group
Capt. Jack R. Warren was with the 357th Fighter group based at Leiston in Suffolk, England. Just two miles from the North Sea coast, this was an ideal location to link up with long-range bombers headed to targets in occupied Europe. It was often used as an emergency landing ground by damaged bombers returning from the continent.
The 357th Fighter Group moved from Raydon to Leiston, and became the first P-51 Mustang group to be attached to the Eighth Air Force. It flew 313 missions in 15 months, lost 128 planes, and claimed over 600 enemy planes in the air and another 100 enemy planes on the ground. The 357th also had the highest number of enemy aircraft claims during a single mission.
On March 18, 1943 Warren was an ace with five kills. He took off on an escort and support mission to Augsburg in Southern Germany. He was last seen near Ostend, Belgium entering a band of haze stretching 30 miles. As the flight broke through the haze, enemy fighters were encountered and Warren was never seen again.
Jack R. Warren is memorialized on the Tablets of the Missing at Cambridge American Cemetery.
James E. Kyes
United States Navy
The Battle of the Atlantic was a campaign waged against German U-boats threatening the shipment of wartime supplies across the Atlantic Ocean. Convoys played an essential role in carrying supplies abroad; consequently, they were valuable targets for enemy forces. Convoys often consisted of more than 60 merchant ships and a dozen escort ships. The USS Learywas a Wickes-class destroyer that had taken part in escort missions numerous times. On December 25, 1944, while escorting the USS Cardthrough rough seas in the North Atlantic, Learywas torpedoed three times by German submarine U-275. She sank with the loss of 98 men.
A commanding officer of the Leary, Cmdr. James E. Kyes gave the order to abandon ship. As he prepared to leave, he checked to see that none of his men remained on board and noticed a kitchen mess boy whose life jacket was torn and useless. Kyes removed his own jacket and handed it to the boy. He then calmly climbed over the side of the boat and was swallowed up by the cold Atlantic waters, sacrificing his own life to protect a young member of his crew.
James E. Kyes is memorialized on the Tablets of the Missing at Cambridge American Cemetery.
Murray M. Blum
United States Merchant Marine
Plot E, Row 0, Grave 51
Lt. Murray M. Blum was the Chief Radio Operator on the SS Leonidas Polk, a Liberty ship. Liberty ships were the standard cargo vessel chosen for mass production by the U.S. wartime industry. They were easy to build and operate, and the ships came to be symbolic of the strength of U.S. wartime industrial output.
On December 3, 1943, the SS Leonidas Polkwas passing through the North Atlantic as part of a blacked-out convoy. In the pitch-dark night the SSLeonidas Polkrammed another ship in its convoy, which sank immediately. Hearing the cries of a drowning survivor out in the water, Blum proceeded to remove his shoes and put on a lifejacket. Moving towards the edge of the boat, he announced, “Lieutenant Murray Blum, Radio Operator, going overboard,” and dove into the wreckage-filled water. Blum was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for sacrificing his life in an attempt to rescue another.
Blum was reported missing at first. His body was eventually found off the coast of Lochryan, Scotland, and he was buried at Cambridge American Cemetery. His parents were in attendance at a Georgia shipyard where the SS Murray M. Blum was commissioned in October 1944. A newspaper article quotes Blum’s mother as saying, “Now he will still be sailing, even if it’s only in spirit.”
Murray M. Blum is buried in Cambridge American Cemetery Plot E, Row 0, Grave 51.
Sidney W. Dunagan
50th Squadron, 314th Troop Carrier Group
Plot E, Row 1, Grave 34
1st Lt. Sidney W. Dunagan was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy. Dunagan was serving as an officer of a troop carrier airplane in the 50thTroop Carrier Squadron, 314thTroop Carrier Group on June 6, 1944. He was leading his crew in the initial invasion of France when Dunagan’s aircraft became separated from his group due to cloud formations over enemy territory. Without radio aid, it was only his excellent navigation that enabled him to locate the Drop Zone, and drop his paratroopers as planned.
Intense enemy ground fire enveloped his airplane immediately thereafter. Dunagan was notified by his crew chief that two paratroopers had failed to jump because their chutes had become tangled. With a singular focus on completing the mission at hand, Dunagan put his plane into a three hundred degree turn to the right to drop the remaining troopers. Enemy fire struck and instantly killed Dunagan, who was flying low and unarmed over enemy ground.
Sidney W. Dunagan is buried in Cambridge American Cemetery Plot E, Row 1, Grave 34.
Harold E. Lester
2nd Ranger Battalion
Plot C, Row 0, Grave 40
On June 6, 1944, or D-Day as it is otherwise known, Pfc. Harold Lester and his fellow Rangers were awakened in the early hours of the morning to depart from their supporting destroyers onto landing craft. Landing craft followed British-manned guide boats to the shores for what would be an hour journey. Due to currents, smoke and the confusion of battle, many craft landed east of their planned objectives, or did not land at all. The freezing waters stung crew and passangers with every splash. The slow-moving amphibious vessels, travelling at a mere five miles per hour, were especially vulnerable to enemy fire.
Lester, who served with the 2ndRanger Battalion, was aboard LCA (Landing Craft Assault)-860 when it started to take on water. The captain, with no other choice, told his men to abandon ship. Two officers and seventeen men plunged into the frigid water. They attempted to shed their equipment and activate their life preservers, but the high waves and cold water put many of them into shock. The group was quickly driven apart as some, unable to shed their equipment, sank beneath the waves. Lester was one of several who drowned.
Harold E. Lester is buried in Cambridge American Cemetery Plot C, Row 0, Grave 40.
William R. Benn Jr.
16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division
Plot B, Row 3, Grave 22
Tech. Sgt. William R. Benn Jr. first saw combat during Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa. There, he single-handedly captured 28 Germans and a truck. For this action, he earned the Silver Star for gallantry and a promotion to the rank of technical sergeant prior to the preparations for D-Day.
On June 6, 1944, Benn landed with the 1stInfantry Division on Omaha Beach in the face of intense enemy fire. His platoon leader was seriously wounded. Without hesitation Benn assumed command and led his troop through heavy machine gun and rocket fire, a minefield and a dangerously steep slope towards enemy positions. Heavy enemy small arms, mortar, and rocket fire rained down on the advancing forces. All the members of the troop, except one, were pinned down and unable to advance. Benn advanced alone, even after being seriously wounded. He successfully silenced several enemy guns before collapsing from his wounds. He was evacuated for medical treatment, but died before reaching a hospital in England. For his courage, valor, and zealous devotion to duty, Benn was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart.
William R. Benn Jr. is buried in Cambridge American Cemetery Plot B, Row 3, Grave 22.
549th Bombardment Squadron, 385th Bombardment Group, Heavy
Plot C, Row 4, Grave 11
1stLt. Nathan Ungar was the navigator on the lead plane of the 549thSquadron “Liberty Belle”, a B-17 of the 385thBomber Group based at Great Ashfield in Suffolk, England. The Liberty Belle survived the deadly Schweinfurt mission on October 14, 1943 on ball bearing factories and took off on its 19thmission on November 30, 1943. At the time bomber crews were allowed to return home after successfully completing 25 missions. Ungar and his comrades were just six missions shy of a “ticket home”.
After take off, the plane headed to the 385th assembly area south of the town of Ipswich, England. At approximately 19,000 feet the pilot gave orders for red flares to be fired. This was the signal for the other bombers to form up. As the flare was cracked, an explosion shook the aircraft, engulfing the top turret. With no possibility of extinguishing the flames, the captain rang the bailout bell. While the crew filed out an explosion tore the plane apart, killing four crewmembers. Ungar’s body was found five miles from the crash site. Reports later concluded that he either jumped without a parachute or it had failed to open.
Nathan Ungar is buried in Cambridge American Cemetery Plot C, Row 4, Grave 11.