Nov. 2, 1944, will forever be etched in the memory of Alfred P. Murphy.
That’s the day the World War II veteran saw another B-17 bomber in his squadron descend into the clouds, both wings on fire, with his Army Air Force buddy, Harry Hansen, inside. Hansen had trained with Murphy, a radio operator, mechanic and gunner on another B-17 bomber in the squadron.
“It’s very painful,” Murphy, 91, said of the image on that day nearly 70 years ago when half of the dozen B-17s in his squadron were lost to enemy fire in a mission over Merseburg, Germany. “You’re aware of your own existence … It’s a terrible feeling of loss.”
Murphy’s role in that mission, in addition to his crew’s 34 additional combat missions, earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross, which he received today.
“It’s a wonderful feeling,” the former technical sergeant said of the medal and the effort made for him to receive it nearly seven decades after serving his country. “When I see the flag passed from generation to generation, my heart fills with pride that we still have people to step up and fight for us to keep our liberties here in America.”
Bill Bradfield, chairman emeritus of the Distinguished Flying Cross Society, called Murphy, a widower, father of two children and retired Detroit firefighter, “a true American hero.”
“It is a big deal,” Bradfield said of the medal. “Every mission he flew in World War II was extremely dangerous. It took a lot of bravery and heroism just to complete those missions.”
The Distinguished Flying Cross is awarded to individuals who distinguish themselves by “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”
Bradfield said the society estimates about 350,000 Distinguished Flying Cross medals have been awarded since 1926. He said the medal is significant and added that what is just as important is that people took it upon themselves to do some research to help Murphy receive the medal he earned.
Several people, including a few from American House where Murphy lives in Rochester Hills, worked for more than two years to find the necessary paperwork related to Murphy’s missions and to make the appropriate appeals for him to receive the medal, said Kevin Kieninger, director of communications for American House. Also helping was Randy Talbot, command historian at U.S. Army Tank Automotive and Armaments Command in Warren.
Col. Philip R. Sheridan, commander of the 127th Wing, Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township, presented Murphy with the medal. Murphy’s family, including his great-grandson, James Stevens, a National Guardsman, was to attend the presentation.
“The dedication and self-sacrifice of airmen like Alfred Murphy set a standard of excellence for today’s Air Force,” Sheridan said. “It is an honor not only to be able to present this award to him, but also to shake his hand and say thank you for your service to our great nation.”
Sgt. Dan Heaton of the 127th Wing’s public affairs said the medal is still earned by people today flying in Iraq and Afghanistan. He called the medal “a high award.”
Murphy, who turns 92 next month, joined the military in 1942 with his late brother, William. He said they wanted to become pilots, but Murphy said he couldn’t land an airplane.
He was a member of the B-17 Flying Fortress (Big Gas Bird) air crew assigned to the 322nd Bombardment Squadron, 91st Bombardment Group (H), 8th Air Force, operating from RAF Bassingbourn, England.
He served until 1945, then returned to Michigan, where he served in the Detroit Fire Department for 30 years, first as a firefighter and later in the communication division because of his radio operator background. He helped set up the department’s EMS service.
Today, Murphy shares his recollections of the war with schoolchildren and other groups, answering questions ranging from whether he was afraid during the missions to how the crew used the restroom while flying in the air.
Murphy said the Distinguished Flying Cross will be kept with his other medals, preserved in cases and held in the care of his daughter, Alison Grablin of Troy.
His prior military decorations include seven Air Medals, the World War II Victory Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with nine Service Stars, the Good Conduct Medal and the Overseas Service.