“It was traditional in Maine when I was growing up. Most families had baked beans and brown bread Saturday nights. My mother used to make it for us,” soon-to-be 100 years old Lt. Armand Sedgeley said.
This World War II hero is now in hospice care just outside of Denver. How I came to know him is as intriguing as his bravery on Feb. 14, 1944, when, while on a mission to bomb enemy rail yards in Verona, Italy, his B-17 was attacked by five Nazi Messerschmitts.
Sedgeley joined the Air Cadets as a teen with his buddies. With the attack on Pearl Harbor, he immediately applied for flight school with the U.S. Army Air Corps. He wanted to be a pilot. He was selected for bombardier school. He graduated and was assigned to a crew destined to fly a B-17 to England. They were soon transferred to North Africa, where sorties were being flown against targets in fascist Italy.
On this mission, Sedgeley’s 36th, fate would change his life forever. Seeing his B-17 coming under attack, Sedgeley jettisoned the bomb load. Almost immediately, a 20 mm explosive shell hit the bomb bay. If it hadn’t been for his quick thinking, the B-17 would have exploded.
The enemy attack damaged three of the B-17’s four engines. Repeated attacks shot up the crew. In a final attack to finish off the stricken B-17, a Messerschmitt came in with machine guns blazing. Sedgeley took the machine gun in his bombardier compartment up to the nose of the aircraft and shot down the enemy fighter.
The tail gunner was screaming in agony into the intercom. Sedgeley gave up his oxygen unit to the navigator because, as a young man, he was able to withstand high-altitude flying without oxygen. He saved the navigator’s life. He then obtained morphine from the pilot and went back into the shot-up fuselage to see to the wounded and dying. He turned the radio operator over and saw he was dead, shot through the left eye. He saw a waist gunner who appeared uninjured until a hole showed fatal wounds to his body. Sedgeley made his way aft. The tail gunner had both legs almost shot off. His agony was only allayed when Sedgeley gave him a morphine injection. He couldn’t remove the tail gunner from his cramped post and left him to attend the others as soon as morphine took effect.
The pilot, with only one engine functioning at full power, diverted his plane to the island of Corsica, now in Allied hands, located roughly 200 miles away. It wasn’t possible to land the B-17 on Corsica’s airfield. Capt. Frank Chaplick ditched his B-17 in the sea just in front of the walled citadel city of Calvi.
That’s where I found it in 1993. I was doing marine research with Dr. Daniel Bay, director of the University of Liège research station. Commercial divers, long after World War II had ended, discovered the sunken B-17, found human remains inside the aircraft, and notified U.S. authorities, who sent a mortuary team to Corsica to retrieve the dead.
Three dead were left inside the B-17 when it sank just minutes after it was ditched. Sedgeley had been able to get the hatch open and deploy a life raft, despite his own grave injuries. But he became pinned behind a chart table. It was only by a miracle that, as the B-17 sank and he was underwater, that he pulled carbon dioxide cartridges on his life vest, freeing him. He was propelled upward and out of the hatch, where he was pulled aboard the inflatable life raft.
During my filming and research, I entered the fuselage of the sunken B-17 in about 121 feet of water. What possessed me to fan the sand and silt away in one particular place, I don’t know. The light fanning revealed a box cover. Underneath it was an ampoule of iodine. I recognized it as the first aid kit. I fanned again and saw immediately what I recognized to be a military dog tag. By this time, the fuselage was silted from my air bubbles hitting the overhead. There was little visibility. I fanned again. The dog tag was propelled up. I grabbed for it, missed, fanned again, and took it in my fingers. Pressing the metal identification tag to my dive mask, I could read it: “R.H. Householder, Wellington, Colo.”
That led to a two-year odyssey to find survivors and discover the history of the B-17, as well as an idea that had immediately come to mind and was approved enthusiastically by Bay—to have a memorial service for the crew.
It was only when I was preparing to leave for Corsica to preside over the International Underwater Film Festival that a colonel in the secretary of the air force’s office called me. He was shredding secret documents, found my letter to the secretary, and called.
“Did anyone help you on this?” He asked.
I said no. I could get nowhere with the U.S. Army—they never responded. The colonel was a history major in college, and once I told him of the plan to have a memorial service, he asked if it would be alright for him to try to help find survivors.
Within two hours the colonel had found two survivors. At the time, Chaplick was alive, but had medical issues and his brother was dying, thus when I called him, he couldn’t participate in the service. Sedgeley, the bombardier hero of the mission, was enthusiastic. He said he had no funds to travel to Corsica. As a result of a front-page story in The Denver Post, a United Airlines chief pilot got Sedgeley and his son first-class air tickets to Corsica.
The event was momentous. It became, with then-President Bill Clinton’s endorsement, the last World War II 50th Anniversary Commemoration in 1995. Sedgeley was honored. The ceremony took place at sea, and I had my friend Philippe Tailliez aboard the dive boat with me to place a memorial plaque on the sunken bomber with a U.S. flag. Tailliez was the father of deep-sea diving, the man who taught Jacques-Yves Cousteau to dive and was Cousteau’s commanding officer in the French Navy.
We remained in casual contact, Sedgeley and I—occasional Christmas cards and a call now and then. It was only about four years ago that Sedgeley told me that he never received his Silver Star medal. He was transferred to a hospital in the United States for his injuries, received five air medals with oak leaf clusters, and a Purple Heart, but never the Silver Star that was awarded to three others in his crew, including the navigator, whose life he had saved.
I haven’t been able to persuade the U.S. Army or the U.S. Air Force to issue it. Now, there are no other survivors from that crew, save for Sedgeley.
On Oct. 26, 2021, he will turn 100 years old. They insisted on personnel records from his file. Those burned in a warehouse fire in St. Louis in 1972, as they well knew. I obtained group records from the National Archives and bomb group records from U.S. Air Force history. Good people in charge got it done and the records document clearly the heroism in combat of this valiant man.
The silver star is on appeal now. Hopefully an appeal board, given the support of three senators, one representative, a governor, retired USAF Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright, retired USAF Maj. Gen. J.P. Klein, and others will be staffed with good-hearted, caring people with honor and they will issue this medal to a deserving combat hero.
Wright and his wife Kerri visited Sedgeley recently and gave him a medallion from the U.S. Air Force Association. I met a family with t-shirts emblazoned with “Rolling Thunder” on them. They put me in touch with Randy Taylor, the president of the nonprofit Rolling Thunder in Colorado. As it would happen, perhaps only as God ordains such miracles, Taylor and his wife live 10 minutes away from where Sedgeley is in hospice care.
Taylor visited Sedgeley and installed a basket on his walker so he could put things in and not trouble his caregiver with minor chores. Best of all, Taylor and his wife shopped for navy beans and brought Sedgeley his favorite Saturday meal: homemade baked beans and brown bread.
Americans rise up to the heritage that so many defended with their courage, so many with their lives, and so many with their youth. The United States is a beacon of freedom to enslaved people everywhere. Let that beacon shine as the goodness of our words are preserved by our actions through the heroism of the defenders of liberty.
Take a lesson from Sedgeley, who at 21 years of age brought hope to the oppressed so long ago.