A former enlisted Army Air Corps veteran accepted one of the U.S. Air Forces highest combat honors recently as friends and family braved overcast skies to be at the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field near Seattle for a medal presentation some 47 years after the fact.
Mr. Lyle R. Patterson, 69 years of age, and a resident of the southwestern Washington town of Naselle, accepted the Distinguished Flying Cross May 8 in a mid-afternoon ceremony set in the forefront of the regionally famed museums static display B-29 bomber. The setting was more than poetic for Patterson, who was a central fire control gunner aboard the Boeing-built bomber in the waning days of the air corps and early days of the Korean War. Washington Air National Guard Commander Maj. Gen. Frank Scoggins, who presented the medal, called Patterson a hero, but acknowledged men like the spry Patterson would be more inclined to say they were just doing their jobs. Jobs entrusted to Patterson and his colleagues by the American people, Washingtons senior Air Guard commander said, noting the significance of the action, its measure of his dedication, and the recognition which a grateful nation could make even today.
Patterson, then an Air Force sergeant, earned the Distinguished Flying Cross during aerial combat on April 12, 1951, when his twin machine guns dropped a MiG-15 fighter jet from the skies above the Korean peninsula.
The retired Naselle High School educator, principal and basketball coach was a gunner for the 30th Bombardment Squadron, 19th Bombardment Group, fighting in the United Nations coalition against communist North Korea. His medal citation and orders, brittle with age, are testament to his courage and determination that April day nearly five decades past: " In the vicinity of the target area, the vital railroad bridge at Sinuiju, North Korea, his formation which was flying at 17,000 feet was subjected to repeated and aggressive enemy fighter attacks.
"Sergeant Patterson singled out one of the MiGs which was beginning its attack from seven oclock high and waited until the enemy fighter was in range. He commenced firing bursts from both upper turrets. The enemy jet fighter fell away in a tail forward position, then rolled over on a wing and out of control and was seen to hit the ground "
Sometimes choked with emotion and pausing for overhead aircraft of nearby King County International Airport, Patterson said he was glad to receive the medal, but that the ceremony meant to honor him was a good chance to remember his former colleagues who died in the war.
"A little piece of this medal goes to them (his crew and friends)," Patterson said, recalling "Bill Goodwin (a Tacoma, Wash., native) was a good friend of mine when I was stationed at Chanute Field in Champagne, Ill. I lost track of him, and then one day I saw him on the cover of a magazine as a casualty of the Korean War."
Following a standing ovation, senior museum curator Dennis Parks invited Patterson and the small audience into the B-29 bomber, which is not usually open to the public, to see where the veteran gunner once worked. "This is the first time hes been in a B-29 since the war," said Elaine Patterson. "I think its outstanding. I really appreciate what everyone has done. It means a lot to me and my husband."
Patterson, whose out-going personality is contagious, took time to reminisce about his brief military career. "A slick talking recruiter got hold of me while I was working as a dishwasher in South Haven, Mich.," Patterson said, explaining his enlistment into the U.S. Army Air Corps in July 1947, only months before that service became the U.S. Air Force. Just out of high school, he wanted to save money before continuing his education and the military seemed a likely choice. "The pay was about $21 a month," he said.
Patterson tried to put his active Air Force career on hold in July 1950, when he joined the Air Force Reserve. Less than a month later, he was recalled to active duty and remained with the Air Force until his discharge in September 1951, which cut short the Air Forces opportunity to formally recognize Patterson.
"A captain gave me the original paperwork and I put it in a drawer and forgot about it," said Patterson. "I got together with some friends (from the local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter) and they started talking about the presentations in which they received their awards. I realized it would be nice to have (a presentation), especially for all my grandchildren to see."
In 1955, the Wisconsin State College alumnus received his teaching credentials and began a second career dedicated to public service. The Spokane-born Patterson, who returned to Washington in the fall 1962, says he wanted to get back to the Evergreen State to be with his relatives.
His career in education made the transition, too. Patterson retired from the classroom and school administration in 1984, but kept a hand in coaching until the end of this basketball season. Hes reportedly the second 'winningest' high school basketball coach in Washington history.
Pattersons story is one of dedication and service to the nation in and out of Air Force blue.