Pilot in harrowing bomb run to be honored at Soldiers & Sailors


Verified Estrogen Brigade
Aug 25, 2006

June 13, 1943.

A formation of B-17s thundered at 27,500 feet over Kiel, Germany, preparing for a bombing run on the critical Baltic Sea port.

Co-pilot Ralph S. Ziegler's tour of duty with the 95th Bomb Group was about to end.

When the day was done, he had twice been raked with fire by enemy fighters, wounded by shrapnel, crash-landed his shot-up bomber, saved his injured crew members and been taken captive by the Germans to begin his nearly two years as a prisoner of war.

For those heroics, he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross.

"I have it mounted in my game room, along with the Purple Heart," said Mr. Ziegler, 90, of McCandless, a retired engineer who has given talks about his wartime experiences.

He'll get another honor on March 28, when Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum inducts him into its hall of valor at a lunch ceremony.

Seven other World War II veterans, four of whom have since died and one who was killed in action, also will be inducted along with a Marine from Washington County awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously by President Richard Nixon in 1971 for saving his comrades in a Vietnam rice paddy.

Soldiers & Sailors inducts a group of veterans every year after a committee nominates them from a list of submissions.

Recognition in the Joseph A. Dugan Jr. Hall of Valor used to be restricted to residents of southwestern Pennsylvania, but the museum now accepts all qualified veterans who were born, enlisted or lived in the state for most of their lives.

Mr. Ziegler, originally from Limerick, Montgomery County, will be joined by John Neel of Pleasant Hills, another Distinguished Flying Cross winner, as the only living veterans at the ceremony. Another World War II vet who won that medal, George Figulski of Turtle Creek, is in poor health in Montana and can't make the trip.

Mr. Ziegler's citation from Soldiers & Sailors describes succinctly why he's entering the hall.

"Despite his painful wounds and enemy fighter opposition, Lt. Ziegler successfully crash-landed the crippled aircraft without injury to the unconscious pilot and other crew members," it reads. "His courageous leadership, outstanding professional skill and devotion to duty reflect the highest credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of the United States."

After anti-aircraft flak damaged his plane and destroyed the oxygen supply, a Messerschmitt 109 fired into the cockpit with its 20mm cannon. Shrapnel wounded Mr. Ziegler, but he stayed at the controls.

Unlike the other men aboard, he had extra bottles of oxygen because he needed to fly the plane. He stayed on course and managed to drop his bombs, but his emergency supply of air -- just five minutes for each bottle -- began to run out.

"I started seeing double and triple," he said. "I put that thing into dive. The only guy who was still conscious was the ball turret gunner because he had a separate oxygen supply."

Pilots were trained to dive low if their planes were hit. But down near the water, four twin-engine Messerschmitt 210s appeared and took turns strafing the plane with machine gun fire, wounding everybody aboard except the turret gunner.

Pilots were told that if they lowered their wheels for landing when they were in trouble, attacking Germans would cease fire. So, with two engines out and his crew suffering, he put his wheels down.

"And they stopped shooting," he said. "It was the code of honor among airmen."

Mr. Ziegler kept his cool and crash-landed on a sandbar, grabbed a first-aid kit and started administering morphine to his crewmates. German officers soon appeared, and a Luftwaffe doctor who spoke perfect English helped him care for the wounded.

From there, Mr. Ziegler was taken to an interrogation center outside of Frankfurt and then held prisoner at Stalag Luft III, which later became famous for the events depicted in the movie "The Great Escape."

In January 1945, with the Red Army advancing and Soviet artillery booming in the distance, the prisoners were forced to evacuate. They marched for seven days in the snow, then spent four more aboard cattle cars before arriving at a new camp outside of Munich.

Mr. Ziegler was finally liberated on April 29, 1945, by George Patton's Third Army. The war ended in May when Germany surrendered.

Mr. Ziegler eventually returned to civilian life and made a career as an electrical engineer. He doesn't have many artifacts from his war years, but he did retain his Class A tunic. He gave it to his son.

On a visit to Soldiers & Sailors, he saw all of the men who have been recognized ahead of him, including a former co-worker.

He said he's proud to join them.

These are the other inductees:

• Karl G. Taylor, Avella, Washington County. Marine Staff Sgt. Taylor, a Maryland native, died in Vietnam in 1968 while charging an enemy bunker to save two dozen fellow Marines. President Nixon awarded him the Medal of Honor posthumously in 1971.

In a televised speech to the nation about the war later that year, the president recalled how Sgt. Taylor's 4-year-old son had saluted and stood at attention during the ceremony.

"My fellow Americans," President Nixon said, "I want to end this war in a way that is worthy of the sacrifice of Karl Taylor."

• Gregory J. Figulski, Turtle Creek, Distinguished Flying Cross. A World War II flyer, Lt. Figulski served in the Mediterranean, where he "consistently displayed outstanding courage, aggressiveness and intense devotion to duty" in destroying enemy targets.

• John Neel, Pleasant Hills, Distinguished Flying Cross. A World War II B-25 pilot, Lt. Neel bombed a railroad bridge at Maribor, Yugoslavia, on April 12, 1945, during a mission in which one B-25 was destroyed and 17 were damaged. On 50 missions, Lt. Neel showed "outstanding proficiency and steadfast devotion to duty."

• The late Jacob J. Colley, Bridgeville, Distinguished Flying Cross. A waist gunner on bombers in World War II, Sgt. Colley's "excellent marksmanship" repelled numerous fighter attacks over Europe.

• The late Edward Fox, Defiance, Bedford County, Distinguished Service Cross. A top turret gunner and engineer on a World War II bomber, Sgt. Fox was wounded by shell fragments on Oct. 14, 1943, during a running battle with German fighters, but stayed at his gun until the attack was repelled.

• The late John R. Mlinac, Carnegie, Silver Star. On Jan. 17, 1945, Pvt. Mlinac lost his arm to a mortar in France. But despite the wound, he took up an observation position by which he was able to direct his squad's fire on attacking Germans, inflicting heavy losses until the unit was overrun and captured.

• The late John T. Rebic, Homestead, Silver Star. In a series of firefights in Italy on June 23, 1944, Pvt. Rebic and his comrades knocked out an artillery piece, destroyed a truck, killed or wounded 12 enemy soldiers, captured three others and forced a larger force to retreat.

• George Saxon, Greenfield, Silver Star. Pvt. Saxon, part of a medical detachment with the 300th Infantry, was killed in action on Guam on Aug. 11, 1944, while trying to save eight wounded men pinned down by mortar and rifle fire.
I might not be a marine yet but there are only two things I can say. 1. That man deserves that flying cross and in my opinion the Medal of Honor 2. Semper Fi, that man is a hero.
If you mean "that man" as in Mr. Ralph Ziegler, to clarify he wasnt a Marine. He was in the 95th Bomb Group which was an air combat unit of the United States Army Airforces during WW II. But agreed..he certainly is a hero.:)
I know he wasn't a marine, I was just saying that because I really meant that he deserves it. And I said "That man" because I couldn't remember his name by the time I finished the reply.:)
Ole, maybe just because its late and I'm tired old and cranky..but it is respectful to capitialize "Marine" when referring to an individual who serves or has served in the Corps. Also in light of his sacrifices, it might be respectful to remember Mr. Ralph Ziegler's name for at least a few minutes.:2c: