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(WWII pilot still waiting for medal. Record of daring landing lost in military's labyrinth
By Carl Nolte Published May 31, 2004 SF Chronicle)
When he closes his eyes, even now, more than 60 years later, George Brandt can see that bitter cold January day in 1944 when he flew his last combat mission of World War II.
He was a hero that day, but his country seems to have forgotten what he did.
Brandt had just turned 24, but he was an experienced bomber pilot, and a veteran of combat, proud of himself. He wore the Army Air Corps insignia on one collar, the gold bar of a second lieutenant on the other. Like all bomber pilots in that long ago war, he wore a necktie flying into combat.
He was at the controls of a B-17 Flying Fortress coming in for a landing at his base at Foggia, Italy, after a raid on two big railroad yards in German- held northern Italy.
Brandt would have to make a perfect landing, coming in slow and steady, just above stall speed, flaps down, and when he hit the runway, balance the 25- ton bomber on the single left wheel. Apply power to the right two engines, just a touch of left brake. Carefully, carefully.
A lot was riding on his skill -- the airplane, the lives of the other nine crew members. Besides, it was his 50th combat mission. By the rules of the game at the time, it was his last: Do 50 missions, the Army Air Corps said, and you can go home to duty in the States. Your war is over.
It is a scene out of a dozen war movies: the crippled plane coming in, the whole squadron out watching, their fingers crossed. Brandt did it perfectly; the plane balanced until he slowed it enough to put weight on the crippled right side. He made it.
"He did a magnificent job," said Julius Horowitz, a retired businessman living in Florida, who talked about it the other day. Horowitz witnessed the landing and remembers it well. He was a bomber pilot himself, and he knew what it took. "It took exceptional skill," he said. "There is no doubt in my mind that he saved that plane."
When Brandt cut the power and the plane stopped, the crew boiled out of the emergency hatches. Col. Fay Upthegrove, the group commander, watched the landing, and later told Brandt that it was "an outstanding piece of flying."
The pilot of a bomber is supposed to be a first lieutenant, but because of a long story involving service bureaucracy, Brandt was only a second lieutenant, the lowest rank of officer, what they used to call "a lowly shavetail." Brandt and Horowitz remembered the colonel saying, "I want him promoted immediately. I want him awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross."
Brandt didn't make first lieutenant until nearly two years later, after the war was over. And though the 99th Bomber Group recommended him for the DFC -- the citation noting his "professional competence, aerial skill and devotion to duty" -- Brandt was told the DFC was approved at higher headquarters. But it never came.
The Army's copy of the citation was lost in the vast labyrinth of paper that wars produce. Brandt stayed in the Air Force (the successor to the Army Air Forces and its branch, the Army Air Corps) for 32 years, earned campaign ribbons and other medals -- the Bronze Star, the Air Medal with nine oak leaf clusters and the Republic of Vietnam Honor Medal -- but he never got that DFC.
Brandt is 84 now, retired and living in Las Vegas. He has two artificial hips, but can still get into his blue uniform. His eyes are as clear and sharp as they ever were. He has five rows of ribbons on his uniform, the silver eagles of a full colonel, a pilot's wings. Everything but the DFC. It bothers him. "It is the only goal I never achieved," he said.
Now his daughter, Kathy Reed, a San Francisco schoolteacher, is trying to get the medal for her father. She edited the old man's personal history, called "My Flight Through Life," which includes the story of her father's service in World War II. It's for family reading only, but her father's story, she said, "really needs to be told. He should receive the recognition he deserves."
She's written Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., whose office has written letters of support to the Air Force, but the Air Force so far has refused to award the DFC. The Air Force said it has thoroughly reviewed the record and it can't find that Brandt was ever recommended for the DFC. The paperwork is missing, and if the paperwork is missing, there is no medal.
It's a kind of Catch-22.
There has always been a catch in Brandt's long military career. He was born in Southern California, was president of the class of 1938 at Laguna Beach High School, learned to fly at a program at Santa Ana Junior College.
When war broke out in Europe, Brandt and his newly minted pilot friends longed to be in it. "I wanted to fly Spitfires with the RAF," he said. He ended up joining the Royal Canadian Air Force and got his wings. In the U.S. Army Air Corps, pilots, co-pilots and navigators were officers, but in the Canadian service, most pilots were sergeants -- "Flying Sergeants" they were called.
By the spring of 1942, the United States was in the war, too, and American recruiters went to Canada to try to sign up U.S. citizens who had joined the Canadian service. Brandt said an American brigadier general promised him that he would get an officer's commission in the U.S. Army Air Corps if he switched.
Brandt quit the RCAF and joined the U.S. Army. But he was still a sergeant. He flew as a sergeant, but when he landed, the brass would come around looking for the officer flying the plane. "I'm the pilot," he'd say.
"Don't give me that crap, sergeant," the officer would say.
Brandt and his flying sergeant pals ended up flying planes that towed targets, the lowliest job in the sky. The sergeants went to the unit commanders and pointed out that they had been promised commissions. But the commanders always remembered that old saw: "A verbal promise isn't worth the paper it's written on."
Eventually, Brandt and his friends got a different rank -- flying officer (correction: flight officer) -- which he described as not quite a warrant officer rank, neither an officer nor an enlisted man.
When he was sent to North Africa to fly combat missions, he ran into one of those catches -- he was an experienced pilot, but not an officer, and only officers could fly as combat pilots. Not only that, because Brandt had skipped a four-year college to get into the war, he couldn't qualify as an officer. Eventually, he got a battlefield promotion as a second lieutenant.
There was a catch to that, too. Second lieutenants weren't supposed to be in command of planes where they were outranked by other officers in the crew. But Brandt had proved himself, and second lieutenant or not, he got his own plane.
There were a lot of close calls. On one mission with Horowitz aboard a B- 17, the plane in front of them caught flak right in the bomb bay. It exploded in their faces. Everybody aboard died. "That plane was flying in my spot in the formation," Brandt said. "I'm still thinking about it."
They flew without fighter escort, a tight formation, the bombers almost wing to wing. Sometimes the Germans would send up their best -- the ME 109 fighter planes. "They had yellow paint on their noses," Brandt remembers, "and when they came, we were scared, because they were good. They were good.
"I survived where a lot of my buddies didn't," he said.
The flyers were young -- at 24 Brandt was an old guy. "We thought we were indestructible," said Horowitz.
It was a game of numbers -- 25 missions, 30, 40. He flew on bombing runs over Greece, northern Italy, sometimes over the Alps into Germany, and more than once to Weiner Neustadt, in Austria.
"Oh yeah," he said, "We had some difficult missions."
By then he was the command pilot on a B-17 named "Queenie". On Jan. 29, 1944, he took the plane up for the 50th and last mission. The plane hit something on the runway as it was taking off -- there was a crash as if a bomb went off. But Brandt got it in the air. He figured they'd blown a tire.
He could have dumped the fuel, dumped the bombs, turned back. He decided to go on with the mission, drop the bombs on the enemy and head back.
"Can you imagine the burden on his mind on that mission?" said Horowitz. "He knew what he had to do. It must have worn on him."
Brandt made the landing, lived to tell the story.
Horowitz was asked if, after all these years, Brandt should still get the medal.
"There is no question that he deserved the Distinguished Flying Cross," Horowitz said. "He did a hell of a lot more than other people who did get the DFC. There is no question. No question at all."
Boxer's office sent new material submitted by Kathy Reed to support her father's story on to the Air Force in late May, but has received no answer yet.
"These things take time," said David Sangretti, Boxer's press officer.
For George Brandt, it's taken a lifetime. (Updates: May 6, 2005, after a 61-year delay, George was presented the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism while participating in aerial flight. December 30, 2014, retired Col. George Brandt, U.S. Air Force (ret.), a lifelong airman, departed for his last flight. A career soldier born in Pasadena, Calif., George first enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in February 1941, earning his wings as an RCAF Flying Sergeant. In 1942, he was repatriated to the U.S. Army Air Corps and received a battlefield commission in July 1943. George retired as a full colonel from the U.S. Air Force in 1973, after 32 years of honorable military service.)