Vincent Fonke, far right, gets his Distinguished Flying Cross from Lt. Gen. Christopher Kelley (Fayetteville Observer Photo)
Thanks to Richard Havers for alerting me to this feel-good story about a deserving Air Corps veteran.
"It took nearly 63 years to be recognized for his heroic efforts flying a B-17 bomber over Germany in World War II, and 85-year-old Vincent Fonke might never have been lauded at all, except for a persistent and curious young captain who heard Fonke’s story years after the war.
Fonke, who lives in Fayetteville, North Carolina, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross at a ceremony Friday morning in a Pope Air Force Base hangar. About 300 airmen, veterans and relatives — including his wife, Belle, and his seven surviving children — watched.
“I never dreamed anything like this could happen,” Fonke said. “I’m overwhelmed.”
The Distinguished Flying Cross, established in 1926, is presented for heroism or extraordinary achievement during aerial flight in combat.
Fonke was flying a B-17 bomber — one of the Flying Fortresses of the 324th Squadron of the 91st Bomb Group — on the morning of Aug. 16, 1944. His convoy was attacked over Eisenach, and six planes were shot down.
Fonke leveled his plane after taking a hit. He saw a fire between two engines on the wing.
“That made my hair stand up straight because all the fuel was in the wings,” he said.
But Fonke didn’t bail out. He rang an alarm bell and ordered his men to jump. He held the craft steady until they were safely gone.
Fonke was captured by the Germans and held in several prisoner of war camps. He was liberated by the U.S. 3rd Army in April 1945.
Fonke spent 30 years in the Air Force before retiring as a colonel.
Years after World War II, Fonke spoke publicly for the first time about his ordeal to a group of graduating soldiers. A young captain in the audience pledged to find documentation in the national archives of the attack on Fonke’s convoy.
That persistence, along with testimony from the plane’s surviving tail gunner, led U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge to pursue the medal Fonke received Friday. Etheridge is a Democrat from Lillington.
“Sometimes the exploits of our heroes fall though the cracks and don’t get the decorations they deserve,” Etheridge said.
The crowd gave Fonke a standing ovation as Lt. Gen. Christopher Kelly, vice commander of Air Mobility Command, pinned on the medal.
As the applause continued, Fonke stood alone in the middle of the stage, shaking his head gently, a slightly embarrassed grin on his face.
“He never lost the intense spirit and pride of being an American airman flying for his country,” Kelly said.
Eric Sinclair of Dunn, a former state commander of the American Legion, was among the veterans watching the ceremony. As with Fonke, Sinclair started in the Air Force as a mechanic.
“I never got as high as he did,” said Sinclair, who served 10 years and finished as a master sergeant.
“You wonder sometimes why it takes so long for things like this to happen,” Sinclair said, “but it’s well-deserved.”
This story was written by Staff writer Gregory Phillips of the Fayetteville Observer.