It's been a season of reflections on the heels of her 40th class reunion, writes Vicki (Sanchez) Moore, a 1977 William Chrisman High School graduate who resides in Lee's Summit with her husband, Russ Moore, a 1975 Truman High graduate.
With the observance of Veterans Day tomorrow, Vicki's reflections, thoughts and remembrances embrace her 95-year-old uncle, Ignacio "Nick" Sanchez, a World War II veteran, who has been named a Chevalier (Knight) in the National Order of the Legion of Honor – France's highest award.
Bestowed by French President Emmanuel Macron, the decrees states: “This award testifies to President Macron's high esteem for your merits and accomplishments. In particular it is a sign of France's infinite gratitude and appreciation for your personal and precious contribution to the Allies' decisive role in the liberation of our country during World War II.”
The U.S. Army Air Corps veteran, survivor of five major engagements in France, received the medal from the French Consular General in Los Angeles on Sept. 19, 2017. The Los Angeles National Cemetery hosted the medal presentation ceremony.
Although he was born in El Paso, Texas, on Nov. 16, 1922, Vicki writes, Uncle Nick had ties with the Kansas City metropolitan area. As a 6-year-old, he moved to Kansas with his family and graduated from Argentine High School in May 1943. Later that month, he was inducted into the Army Air Corps.
Small in stature – at 5-foot-5 and 158 pounds – young Nick was more than ready to come to the aid of his country, his niece writes, recalling he exclaimed, “Our country needs us” after hearing about the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
After basic training in Lincoln, Nebraska, armament school in Denver and gunnery training in Kingman, Arizona, it was off to Salt Lake City to form B-17 crews. Then to Alexander, Louisiana, to hone their formation-flying skills. Upon completion of training, Nick's 10-member B-17 crew was ready for aerial combat and assigned to the 8th Air Force base in Chelveston, England.
As a ball-turret gunner confined to tight quarters beneath his B-17, Nick would lie on his back inside a steel turret in the belly of a bomber for up to 12 hours on each of the 35 successful missions, including the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, in which Nick “could see watercraft from horizon to horizon during pre-bombing missions.”
“It was sad while on target runs when you saw all these parachutes floating down, not knowing what would happen to them when they landed on the ground. But the horror of seeing airplanes blowing up, on fire and crashing will never be forgotten.”
Vickie tells a frightening story her uncle experienced on a bombing mission over Ebelhach, Germany, in which flak shut down the No. 1 engine and punctured the fuel tank, resulting in the No. 2 engine catching fire. Thanks to the efforts of both pilots, the disabled bomber – with 46 flak holes – landed safely after they put it into a 12,000-foot dive that extinguished the flames.
Of all the air battles Nick Sanchez witnessed over Europe, none, he recalls, surpasses the one over Merseberg, Germany, on a bomb run involving 360 aircraft in 10 air groups. Escorting the armada were 800 P-51s. By the end of the day, 56 B-17s and 30 P-51s had been shot down.
Vickie remembers her uncle telling her how, upon completion of his 35th and final mission, he jumped out of the plane, got on his knees, kissed the ground, jumped up and screamed, “I'm going home, thank God!”
Discharged in October 1945 as a staff sergeant, battle veteran Nick Sanchez returned to his Kansas home and worked for the Santa Fe Railroad before rejoining the U.S Air Force in 1947. He retired in 1965 as a master sergeant.
In a tribute to her Uncle Nick, who resides in Buena Park, California, his proud niece writes:
“Thank you Uncle Nick, for your bravery and service in those critical years when our nation needed you.”
“Thank you Uncle Nick, for your example and that legacy you have given to every American.”
“Thank you Uncle Nick, for making the special effort to return to us here in KC every year so we can enjoy and learn more and more of your life story.”
“Kansas City loves you ...”
-- Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.