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‘True American Hero’ Gets Medal 70 Years After Flying Final World War II Mission

Alfred P. Murphy flew 35 World War II missions aboard a bomber so big it was called the Flying Fortress. Nearly 70 years after his last mission, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for “heroism and extraordinary achievement.”

Col. Philip R. Sheridan awards the Distinguished Flying Cross to Alfred Patrick Murphy. Also pictured is Pvt. James Stevens of the 176th Military Police Company, Michigan Army National Guard, Murphy’s grandson. (John Swanson/US Air National Guard)
Col. Philip R. Sheridan awards the Distinguished Flying Cross to Alfred Patrick Murphy. Also pictured is Pvt. James Stevens of the 176th Military Police Company, Michigan Army National Guard, Murphy’s grandson. (John Swanson/US Air National Guard)

By TSgt. Dan Heaton, 127th Wing Public Affairs

On every mission, there were holes. 

Thirty-five times, nine men went out on a bomber so big they called it the Flying Fortress. Each and every time they came back in a plane peppered with bullet holes. Sometimes, many times, the guys flying in the plane next to them didn't come back at all. 

On Monday, April 21, 2014 - more than 69 years after he flew his final mission - the U.S. Air Force presented former Technical Sgt. Alfred P. Murphy with a Distinguished Flying Cross after an official review determined that he earned the medal in World War II, while flying as a radio operator/mechanic/gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber in Europe.

"It was only the skill and courage of the entire crew that allowed us to live through that," said Murphy, now a few weeks shy of his 92nd birthday and living in retirement at an American House community in Rochester Hills, Mich. "No one man could have done that. You had to be a team."

Through 35 missions, over a roughly 8-month period that began in the summer of 1944 -- roughly from the Invasion of Normandy through the Battle of Bulge -- Murphy and his fellow Airmen in the 322nd Bomb Squadron survived anti-aircraft fire, repeated attacks by enemy fighters and - after every mission - they'd land back at their base in Bassingbourn, England, and shake their heads at the bullet holes in their planes. After every mission. 

"The dedication and self-sacrifice of Airmen like Patrick Murphy set a standard of excellence for today's Air Force," said Col. Philip Sheridan, commander of the 127th Wing at Selfridge Air National Guard Base. Sheridan awarded the DFC medal to Murphy in a short ceremony at Murphy's retirement community, April 21. "It was an honor not only to present this award to him, but also to shake his hand and say thank you for your service to our great nation." 

When Murphy and his crew first arrived for duty with the 322nd Bomb Squadron, 91st Bomb Group, 8th Air Force, for the war in Europe, the goal was simple, he said.

"We weren't trying to win medals, none of that. It was do your job, look out for your crew and hope to hell you made it home alive," Murphy recalls now. "When I first arrived, it was complete 25 missions and you could rotate home. Then Gen. Hap Arnold changed it to 30 missions. Then (Lt. Gen.) Jimmy Doolittle came in and made it 35 missions and you could go home. When the Battle of the Bulge started, the rumor was that we were going to be there until it was over. I thought, 'These guys are trying to kill me.' But 35 finally came and we got shipped back to the States."

Murphy's crew was among the 12 from the 322nd that flew Nov. 2, 1944, in an all-out effort against industrial targets in Merseberg, Germany. It was, he says simply, his worst day of the war.

"It was our number one priority target my whole time overseas," Murphy recalled. "The closest thing I can compare it to is the Ford Rouge Plant (in Dearborn, Mich.). It was a massive industrial complex that turned out something on the order of 15 percent of the Nazi war production. Detroit was the Arsenal of Democracy. Well, Merseberg was their arsenal."

During that mission, weather slightly delayed the 322nd, leaving them somewhat behind the rest of the formation that day.

"Wagner, our tail gunner called up to the pilot, and he reports 30 German fighters queuing up behind us, getting ready to attack. And 30 more queuing behind them. And behind that, he says, just a bunch more milling around," Murphy said.

The 322nd lost half of its Airmen that day - six of the 12 B-17s and crews that took off that morning did not return home. Of the 36 B-17s from the 91st Bomb Group in that mission, a total of 13 did not return. 

Still, even after surviving that sort of attack, Murphy said his crew somehow soldiered on. Always focused on doing their duty. For their flag and for each other. 

"We never aborted and we never turned back. Not on a single mission," Murphy reports.

When his 9-man crew rotated home, the crew's pilot, Capt. Milzia Ellis, stated that he was going to recommend each member of the crew for the DFC. Apparently, that either never happened or the paperwork was lost during the war.

In early 2012, encouraged by family and friends, Murphy, who was also awarded seven Air Medals and various other decorations, formally requested his record to be reviewed. Murphy's 2014 awarding of the DFC is not a case of a medal just never delivered, it was the first time he was authorized by the military to wear the decoration. 

"Mr. Murphy is so deserving of this long-awaited distinction. He is a true hero and we're humbled that he calls American House home," said Rob Gillette, chief operating officer of American House, where Murphy lives. "We're humbled to have a hero of Mr. Murphy's caliber at one of our communities."

Instrumental in helping Murphy through the official medal-review process were American House team members Angie Kadowaki and Anne Tomlinson, who both work at the complex where Murphy lives. The women also help arrange for and transport Murphy to visits at area schools and other venues, where he frequently shares some of his experiences. He delights in telling students about the B-17 he flew aboard, which he helped name: the "Big Gas Bird."

"I always tell them - it's three separate words and don't say it fast," Murphy said with a grin.

Murphy's sense of humor quickly endeared him to the American House staff. 

"Not only is he an American hero, but Mr. Murphy is just a joy to be around," said Kadowaki. 

Kadowaki and Tomlinson eventually came in contact with Randy Talbot, the command historian for the U.S. Army's Detroit Arsenal in Warren, Mich. Talbot aided with the medal-request process and made what turned out to be a critical suggestion.

"The criteria for various awards have not only changed over the years, but during World War II, the criteria for the Distinguished Flying Cross changed at several points in the war and also varied by type of aircraft and even among the different squadrons and groups flying the same aircraft. The request we made for Mr. Murphy was to have his records reviewed based on the criteria in place at the time he served with the 322nd," Talbot said. 

Talbot then reached out to the 127th Wing of the Michigan Air National Guard for assistance in presenting the award. Sheridan, the wing's commander, has served as a fighter aircraft pilot for most of his career, but also spent about a year as a pilot of the B-1 Lancer, a modern bomber aircraft.

"Based on the nature of this award, it was most appropriate for a senior Air Force officer to award it to Mr. Murphy," Talbot said. 

The Distinguished Flying Cross is awarded to individuals who distinguish themselves by "heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight."

After his military career, Murphy spent more than 30 years serving his community as a firefighter with the Detroit Fire Department.

Donna Hoffmann April 23, 2014 at 09:50 AM
Mr Murphy, thank you for your service. We are deeply indebted to men like you. My dad flew in the eighth Air Force as well. I'm happy to read your story. I'm glad those involved were able to resolve our unpaid gratitude.Thank you sir for a job well done.
Byers-Smith April 23, 2014 at 10:24 AM
My Dad, Milo Schultz will be 91 next week. He was a B-17 navigator on "Eyes Available Two" in Molesworth, England. He was wounded and spent over a year in hospital for his injury. Thank you Mr. Murphy and thanks Dad!
Beth Egan De Guise May 01, 2014 at 10:56 AM
Mr. Murphy, thank you for your service to our country! I enjoyed reading your story and am glad you finally received the DFC. Well done!

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