Before World War II veteran Armand Sedgeley crosses the finish line of life, he has one final mission: to receive the Silver Star his commanders put him up for after a harrowing bomber flight over Europe.
At 99, and with a tired heart, Sedgeley lives at a Lakewood retirement community with 90-year-old friend turned hospice caregiver Marilyn Bourque. The pair became friends in the past two years — after both had lost their life-long partners — and Bourque offered up her two-bedroom apartment and a helping hand.
“He is very good company,” said Bourque, who has been caring for Sedgeley about two months. “He is a very intelligent man who has had a very good life.”
Sedgeley grew up in rural Maine and enlisted in the Army Air Corps shortly before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Following the attack, he became an officer, attending aviation cadet training before being assigned as a bombardier.
Sitting in a recliner as sunlight streamed into Bourque’s apartment, Sedgeley adjusted the oxygen tube in his nose before thinking back 77 years to when at 22-years-old the B-17 “Flying Fortress” aircraft he was aboard was badly damaged by a German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter.
On Feb. 14, 1944 a flight of B-17s was sent to attack enemy supplies in boxcars at a railroad marshalling yard in Verona, Italy. On the way there, the crew assigned to the 97th Bomb Group tested their machine guns but the tail gunner found his weapon jammed.
“That particular day … the fighters that were to meet us before the bomb run didn’t get there,” Sedgeley said. “So as a result the enemy protecting that marshalling yard … found out right away they weren’t getting anything from our tail, so that made it very simple for them to just blaze away at that tail.”
As the B-17 bombers banked left to come around on the railyard targets, Sedgeley’s aircraft was on the outside edge and got away from the formation as the Germans pounced.
The tail gunner, one waist gunner and the radio operator were killed. The other waist gunner was severely wounded and later died of his injuries at a hospital.
With the German fighters closing in, Sedgeley released the bombs so they wouldn’t be struck by enemy fire.
As one German fighter approached on the left side of the bomber, 2nd Lt. Sedgeley opened fire with a .50-caliber gun from his bombardier location in the nose of the aircraft, as did the aircraft's navigator. The pair were able to shoot the aircraft from the sky before additional crewmates aboard the B-17 were injured.
With two wrecked engines and one badly damaged on the four-engined bomber, the pilot dropped altitude to hide in the clouds and asked the navigator to find the closest friendly airfield. They headed for the French island of Corsica, 200 miles away. Approaching the landing strip, the pilot realized the runway was too short, forcing them to ditch the plane in the Mediterranean Sea.
While preparing to land on the water, Sedgeley sat in the radio room with his back to a bulkhead and his arms raised to protect his head. The force of the impact caused a nearby table that was attached to the floor to bend and slam against his chest, injuring him and pinning him to the bulkhead.
The six other crewmen were able to exit the bomber and board a life raft as the plane filled with water and began to sink. Sedgeley took a deep breath before his head went under with the sinking plane.
“By the grace of God, I was eventually able to get that table back enough that I could get out,” he said.
He pulled the Co2 cartridges on his life vest.
“I literally just floated up through the hatch of the radio room,” he said. “The crew, everybody that was alive, was already in the dingy.”
They were quickly rescued in the Bay of Calvi.
Three crewmates were awarded the Silver Star, the military's third highest medal for valor in combat. Sedgeley said his squadron had approved a Silver Star for him as well, but the paperwork got snagged somewhere in the system. He doesn’t know why.
“Of course, naturally, I felt there isn’t any reason why I wouldn’t have got it, like some of the others did,” he said. “At this stage of my life, it would be for my family.”
Following the war, Sedgeley majored in civil engineering and earned a degree at the South Dakota School of Mines. He worked jobs in Omaha and Chicago before being recruited to Colorado in 1970 to work for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He has called Colorado home ever since.
Sedgeley has four sons, three grandchildren and three great grandchildren, with a fourth on the way.
His second oldest son, David Sedgeley, 72, of Green Valley, Ariz., said his father was a typical World War II veteran in that he didn’t talk about his service much.
“I think my dad will be remembered as a perfectly typical member of that generation who faced enormous adversity, was injured, managed to live through it, came home and got on with life,” David Sedgeley said.
David and his brothers learned many more details about their father’s service in the past three decades thanks to John Fine, a New York native and marine biologist who was tracking coral growth off Corsica in the early 1990s and was familiar with the downed B-17. While exploring the wreckage about 120 feet down, Fine found a dog tag belonging to R.H. Householder, a crewmate of Sedgeley’s from Wellington, Colo. Householder was one of the three men aboard killed by German fighters.
Fine eventually tracked down Sedgeley with help from the Air Force and decided to plan a ceremony at the site of the plane. After working with French officials, it became a 50th anniversary commemorative celebration. Sedgeley and his son David traveled to Corsica in 1995 for the ceremony.
David said he would like to see his father’s efforts recognized with a Silver Star.
“It would be a very nice historical thing for our family,” he said.
Fine agrees and has spent countless hours over the past several years reaching out to military offices and Colorado elected officials without success.
One of the roadblocks is that Sedgeley’s personnel file burned in a 1972 warehouse fire, according to Fine.
“He is a forgotten hero,” Fine said. “Let’s hope that the story of his heroism and bravery gets the attention of our commander in chief.”