Valor: The Mills Grind Slowly

March 1, 1990

The Air Force Cross was authorized by Congress in July 1960 as USAF’s equivalent to the Army Distinguished Service Cross and the Navy Cross. All three rank second only to the Medal of Honor, this country’s highest award for valor in combat.

The first AFC was awarded posthumously to U-2 pilot Maj. Rudolf Anderson, who was shot down while photographing missile sites in Cuba in October 1962. It follows, then, that all subsequent awards of the Air Force Cross were for extraordinary heroism in Southeast Asia. Right? Wrong. At least two awards have been made for World War II combat actions that were not adequately recognized at the time. One of them was to Maj. Urban L. (Ben) Drew.

When Lieutenant Drew reported to the 375th Squadron, 361st Fighter Group, at Bottisham, England, in June 1944, he came full of self-confidence, eager for combat, and well prepared. For a year, he had been instructing fledgling P-51 pilots in air combat tactics at Bartow, Fla. On his initial combat mission, Drew destroyed a Ju-52 on the ground near Paris. During the next two weeks, he established an enviable record in that most dangerous of fighter missions strafing anything that moved bearing a swastika in enemy-held territory. His first air victory, over an Me-109, came on June 25, followed by two more in late August and early September.

The importance of Drew’s Sept. 18 mission was not recognized at the time. His group was escorting USAAF heavy bombers on a shuttle mission to Russia. As the 361st approached its break-off point south of Sweden, Drew saw a twin-engine bogey skimming the water off the German coast. He was given permission to investigate and, with two wingmen, headed for the deck, where he destroyed an He-111 bomber.

Climbing back up, he spotted “the biggest aircraft I had ever seen” sitting on the water at a seaplane base. The six-engine aircraft he and his wingmen destroyed was later acknowledged to be a BV-238 VI, a new very-long-range bomber that had just finished its operational tests and with which Hitler had hoped to attack New York and Washington. With the prototype sunk, the Nazi program apparently was abandoned.

Three weeks later, while returning from an escort mission to Czechoslovakia, Drew spied two aircraft taking off from the Luftwaffe base at Achmer. He recognized them as Me-262 jet fighters, a new breed with which he had tangled a few days earlier. Telling his deputy squadron leader to take over, Drew, with his Nos. 2 and 3 wingmen, rolled over in a near-vertical dive, approaching compressibility as he pulled out and began firing at the airborne No. 2 Me-262, which exploded, nearly flipping Drew’s P-51 over.

The lead -262 broke left in a steep climbing turn. In his report, Drew wrote: “I was still indicating about 400 mph, and I had to haul back on the stick to stay with him. I started shooting from about 60 degrees deflection, 300 yards, and my bullets were just hitting the tall section of the E/A. I kept horsing back on the stick, and my bullets crept up the fuselage to the cockpit…. I saw the canopy go flying off… and the plane rolled over… hitting the ground at about a 60-degree angle.”

Thinking he might not make it home through the curtain of flak that surrounded him all the way to the North Sea, Drew passed the word of his double Me-262 victory to his deputy lead. He did make it–the only man to have downed two German jet fighters at that time.

Unfortunately, his gun camera had jammed. His No. 2 man had been shot down by flak and became a POW. His No. 3, who had broken to the right early, saw only two columns of black smoke–not the actual shootdown. The recommendation that Drew be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross was turned down because of insufficient confirmation.

In 1950, after volunteering to fly P-47Ns in the Pacific, Drew left the Air Force as a major. Years after the event, German sources confirmed that Drew had destroyed two Me-262s at Achmer that October day in 1944. The Air Force Board for the Correction of Military Records recommended that he be awarded the Air Force Cross, successor to the DSC. Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Gabriel arranged for Drew and his wife, Lynette, to be flown from their home in Pretoria, South Africa, to Washington, where Air Force Secretary Verne Orr presented the medal in May 1983. It had been a long wait for that happy ending. Indeed, the mills sometimes do grind slowly.

Published March 1990. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.