Heroic Action -- Bureaucratic Battle

December 19, 1993|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,Staff Writer

Nearly 50 years have passed since Army Air Forces Sgt. John Moreno became a hero by relinquishing his parachute to another crewman as their B-24 bomber was going down over Budapest.

Both men were in the nose. The other man's chute had come open when the plane was hit. He was too large to get through an escape hatch about 18 inches square with the canopy bundled in his arms.

So Sergeant Moreno, who was smaller, gave up his own packed chute. Wearing it, the other crewman, a lieutenant, wriggled through the opening in the floor and fell clear of the four-engine plane, barely missing the two whirling propellers closest to the fuselage.

Then it was the sergeant's turn. But his jump would be more dangerous. He would have to hold the opened chute in his arms -- and hope the canopy would not snag going through the hatch, or billow into the propellers, or fail to deploy.

He fastened the straps, gathered the nylon folds tightly in his arms and jumped. On the way down, he negotiated himself out of a dangerous spin and floated to safety, as had the lieutenant.

The men were captured and held in separate prisoner of war camps for the rest of World War II.

Mr. Moreno now says his actions seem like nothing compared to his subsequent tangle with the Air Force over a hero's medal. Since 1989, with the endorsement of his former commanding officer, he has appealed unsuccessfully to the Air Force for the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), a medal awarded for extraordinary heroism.

Air Force officials at first rejected his request, saying he had waited too long. Recommendations for the honor must be submitted within two years of a heroic act. Period.

Later, though, the Air Force -- postwar successor to the Army Air Forces -- excused the delay and awarded him a lesser honor, the Commendation Medal. It is the second lowest on the long list of Air Force medals and is given for outstanding achievement, meritorious service or an act of courage that doesn't qualify for higher honors.

Mr. Moreno, now 74, is appealing in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. In a lawsuit against Secretary of the Air Force Sheila E. Widnall, he says he has exhausted his military appeals and describes the Air Force decision as arbitrary and capricious.

"It's a simple question of why in the world not give it to the guy?" says his Annapolis lawyer, William M. Ferris.

Mr. Moreno and his former commanding officer say it would have been virtually impossible to meet the application deadline. The sergeant was held in a POW camp in Hungary for more than a year.

Another complication: The lieutenant who used his parachute was a substitute, and Sergeant Moreno didn't know his name. The two never saw each other again.

Once released, Sergeant Moreno had no idea how to verify the story. "Without proof, who's going to believe you?" he says. "It sounds like a damn fool story."

So for years, he mentioned the incident to no one, and the story remained unknown to all but the two men.

Mr. Moreno returned to Maryland, worked as a cabinetmaker for Western Mill and Lumber Co. in Baltimore and retired in 1981. He never married. With his brother, Victor, he shares a simple, one-story brick and frame house that backs onto quiet Nabbs Creek in Anne Arundel County.

A small cottage-like structure with picture windows overlooking the water perches on a hill out back. It is equipped with a pool table and a bar, and on its walls are many framed mementos, including a yellowed newspaper clipping of a picture of Sergeant Moreno and other local servicemen singing around a piano before heading off to war.

"By the time I got out, I wasn't worrying about anything, especially getting a doggone medal," he says.

It is Air Force policy not to comment on reasons for denying of a medal to protect service members' privacy.

But in a 1991 report, an Air Force official maintained that, based on Mr. Moreno's description of the event, and the absence of documents recommending him for a decoration, the Commendation Medal was appropriate -- not the DSC.

"The award he's looking for is a very exclusive award," said Capt. Tom Gilroy, spokesman for the Air Force Military Personnel Center at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio. "Not to belittle what he did, but there aren't a whole lot of people who've received [the DSC]."

The award is one notch below the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest decoration for valor, and one notch above the Silver Star.

Story confirmed

The story of Sergeant Moreno's courage began to unfold seven years ago, after he attended a military reunion in Milwaukee and learned the lieutenant's name. With the help of the American Ex-Prisoners of War Association, Mr. Moreno's niece contacted the officer, who wrote back from California confirming the story in a three-page, handwritten letter.

Air Force officials acknowledged Mr. Moreno's courage in 1990 by granting him the Commendation Medal. But he was not satisfied.

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