Date: March 08, 2004
"Local pilot receives Distinguished Flying Cross
By PETER GUINTA Assignment Editor
U.S. Army Air Corps Second Lt. Robert H. Gernand waited at the stick of his crippled and burning B-24 Liberator while the plane's 10-man crew bailed out.
He then climbed through the fuselage, but found two of his crewmen wounded and struggling into their parachutes.
Gernand hurried back to the plane's controls, keeping the B-24 aloft long enough for the last two men to get out of the spiraling aircraft.
On Saturday, at the Marine Street headquarters of the Florida National Guard and 60 years after his heroic decision, Gernand received the Distinguished Flying Cross,
one of the nation's highest decorations for valor.
Brig. Gen. Joe Balskus, commander of the Florida Air National Guard, told nearly 70 people who showed up to honor Gernand that the plane's mission that Valentine's Day, 1944,
was to drop bombs on a German target in Italy.
"Sometimes we get the opportunity to correct some wrongs, things that should have been done long ago," Balskus said. "This award is extremely well-deserved and I am humbled and honored to present it."
He said that the incident happened on Valentine's Day made it more significant.
"There was no greater love displayed that day than the love displayed to the crew of that B-24 Liberator that day," he said.
Gernand -- now in his 80s and living in St. Augustine -- had made it safely to the ground but spent 15 months in a German prisoner of war camp before being liberated by the Russians, he said.
By the time he was released and repatriated, two years had gone by, missing the deadline for recommendations for heroism awards.
"Congress recently allowed us to go back and correct the mistakes of the past," Balskus said. With the aid of Seventh District Congressman John Mica and
Fourth District Congressman Ander Crenshaw, the DFC was approved.
Gernand said his plane was over its target near Verona when two of its four engines were shot out by flak from the ground. Then six Messerschmitt M-109s fighter planes attacked,
knocking out the third engine and setting the fourth on fire.
"I rang the alarm bell to tell everyone to get out," he said. "I waited what seemed like an awfully long time. When I went back, two of the gunners were wounded. I went back and straightened up the airplane."
After he bailed out, a fighter pilot followed his chute down.
"I thought he was going to shoot me, but he was just taking pictures," Gernand said. "I think he just wanted credit for shooting me down."
At the time, Gernand was serving as operations officer for 723rd Bomber Squadron, part of 450th Bomber Group, nicknamed "The Cottontails."
Gernand's B-24 had a picture of a leggy model and the words "Take-Off Time" painted on the plane near the cockpit. Gernand said the B-24 was a great airplane.
"There were 18,000 of them built," he said. "It was the most mass-produced plane of the war."
The entire incident might have been forgotten, lost forever in the dusty annals of World War II, if Gernand had not learned that Congress had opened up the award deadline.
He applied for the award to be given to one of his crewmen, Sgt. Louis Velasquez.
Velasquez eventually was recommended for a Distinguished Flying Cross for staying back in the plane that day and helping other crewmen out. After Velasquez got the DFC, he said, "What about the pilot?"
Gernand was then recommended for the award. His citation reads "for outstanding heroism and devotion to duty" and the medal has a red stripe in the middle, surrounded by white and blue ones.
Ed Taylor, a retired Army colonel, told the assembled friends and family, "It is very gratifying to me to see that we are going back and recognizing our heroes."
When Balskus pinned the DFC on his chest, Gernand smiled. "It took Congress 60 years to get this thing to me," he said, thanking everyone.
Then tears came to his eyes as he spoke of his son, a pilot who flew combat aircraft in Vietnam and who is now deceased.
"He came to me once and said, 'I got a DFC just like you, Dad.' I told him, 'No, I didn't get it.' Wherever he is now I want to say, 'Son, I've got it.' "
© Copyright 2004 The St. Augustine Record