WWII veteran honored with medals he earned 7 decades ago

WWII veteran honored with medals he earned 7 decades ago
(Photo courtesy: Darren Burgfeld)
(Photo courtesy: Darren Burgfeld)
(Photo courtesy: Darren Burgfeld)
(Photo courtesy: Darren Burgfeld)
(Source: KFVS)
(Source: KFVS)
(Photo courtesy: Darren Burgfeld)
(Photo courtesy: Darren Burgfeld)

CAPE GIRARDEAU, MO (KFVS) - On December 23, 1944 a crew of nine men aboard a B-17, known as the flying fortress 812, had just completed a mission during the Battle of the Bulge.

Sgt. Clifford Heinrich of Cape Girardeau was the tail gunner.

"That age I was anxious to be in the war," said Clifford Heinrich.

At the age of 17, Heinrich enlisted in the United States Air Force.

"I felt like it was my duty to be there," said Heinrich.

Two days before Christmas, on a foggy evening, Heinrich and his crew were flying over Great Rollright, a small town in the county of Oxfordshire in South East England.

"The tail was hitting branches of the trees, so I got out of the tail and went to the radio room in the center of the plane, that's when it happened," said Heinrich.

The plane mysteriously went down.

Heinrich has no memory of the crash.

"[I] woke up the next day in the hospital," said Heinrich.

Clifford Heinrich is the only one who survived the crash.

"I didn't know about my crew until about a week later."

He spent 14 months in four different hospitals before heading home to Chicago, never to forget what he went through and the friends he lost. Heinrich never received his medals from World War II, including a Purple Heart.

On March 21, 2016 that all changed.

Heinrich was honored in front of a gymnasium filled with children at Alma Schrader Elementary in Cape Girardeau.

The kindergarten through fourth grade students are just starting to learn about our country's war history, and the cost of freedom.

"I think they learned we have a country we should be proud of, and our community will take away from this that our students learned that lesson and will continue to learn that lesson," said Dr. Ruth Ann Orr-Principal, Alma Schrader Elementary School.

No one knows why that plane went down on that cold day in 1944, and to this day Heinrich doesn't understand why he is the sole survivor.

"I like to think may be God was on my side."

A young nurse is credited with saving Heinrich's life.

First Lieutenant Megan Lewis with Queen Alexandria's Nursing Corps reportedly was staying in Great Rollright the night the crash happened.

Lewis is said to have gotten word about the crash, then immediately grabbed her medical bag and drove to find the downed plane.

Four of the crewmen reportedly died at the crash site, four others would later die from their injuries.

Nurse Megan Lewis passed away in 2001. Her daughter, Diane Gomersall, came all the way from England to Cape Girardeau to meet the man her mother rescued.

"The whole experience today, I will never, ever forget it," said Gomersall. "I'm quite tearful now just talking about it."

Seventy-one years later, at the age of 90, Clifford Heinrich still vividly remembers every crew member.

He thinks of them, and their families often.

As if this day couldn't be more emotional, several family members of some of the fallen crew also made the trip from around the country to meet and honor Heinrich.

Members of ball turret gunner Edmund Fitzgerald's family were present, as well as family members of waist gunner George Bruce Hawley, and members of Co-Pilot Walter Graves' family.

Graves' family flew in from Florida to attend.

"This is probably one of the greatest honors I've ever been a part of," said Michelle Chastain Oden, Graves' great niece.

Clifford Heinrich lived most of his life in Chicago, Illinois. He moved to Cape Girardeau just 10 years ago. Cape Girardeau is his home now, and the community is embracing him as one of its own.

"I'm amazed at all the people involved with happened a long time ago," said Heinrich.

At first, Heinrich humbly didn't want to accept his medals, but agreed to do so in honor of his fallen crew members.

He said he already has a place of prominence picked out in his home to display the medals.

The medals he received include: an American Campaign Medal, a European-African Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, a WWII Victory Medal, an Army Good Conduct Medal, a WWII Lapel Button and a Purple Heart.

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