Laurence Volrath, 83, pilot decorated for B-17 missions during World War II

April 13, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Laurence Victor Volrath, a decorated World War II B-17 Flying Fortress pilot who flew 35 missions over Germany and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, died April 6 of lung cancer at North Arundel Hospital. The Glen Burnie resident was 83.

Mr. Volrath, who had lived for 57 years on Clarkson Street in South Baltimore, had resided for the last three years at his grandparents' former summer home on Marley Creek.

Born and raised in the city's Brooklyn section, Mr. Volrath attended Polytechnic Institute. After leaving school at 16, he worked as a pipe fitter at the old U.S. Industrial Chemicals plant in Curtis Bay.

He became interested in aviation as a youth, watching planes take off and land from a small airfield near his grandparents' home. With the outbreak of World War II, Mr. Volrath enlisted in the Army Air Forces in 1942 and was accepted as an aviation cadet. He received his wings in 1943 after completing flight training at Stockton, Calif.

"There was never anything else he wanted to do but fly. He wanted to be a fighter pilot but wound up being a bomber pilot," said a brother-in-law, Nathan D. Steele Jr. of Arnold, who has been writing a memoir about Mr. Volrath's wartime experiences.

"During his flight training, he had a wild instructor who wished to test his abilities as a pilot. He ordered him to fly down the middle of the Grand Canyon and then below the rim for several minutes. He said, `You can't imagine how dark it is when flying below ground level,'" Mr. Steele said.

After completing combat training, he was assigned to the 385th Bomb Group, where he received his first B-17 and crew.

When he and his crew were ferrying their bomber to England as part of a squadron of about 50, they encountered a fierce storm near Goose Bay, Labrador, where they were to refuel. As Mr. Volrath's plane circled the field, he did some rapid calculations and figured he would run out of fuel before it was his plane's turn to land. He got back on the radio and told the air traffic controller, "OK, I'll see ya. I'm going to Presque Isle, Maine."

"He had figured the fuel he had on board, the burn rate and the winds. It was the German in him. He landed with two engines out and was literally flying the plane on vapors," Mr. Steele said. "He was a good pilot, figured it out, and wasn't nervous."

Another time, Mr. Volrath risked a court martial after making an unauthorized modification on a plane. He placed a valve in a line that supplied oxygen to the cockpit. In the event of a fire, he could turn off the oxygen, which would feed what amounts to a flash fire.

"It was the pipe fitter in him. The military authorities were furious at first but then figured out that he was right. It would save lives. His modification later became standard on all airplanes," Mr. Steele said.

During his overseas service, one of Mr. Volrath's bombers was blown up on the ground and another was lost by its alternative crew on a bombing run.

During 100 days in 1944, Mr. Volrath flew 35 missions. Fourteen of them were aboard his third plane, Miss D-Day - including two over Caen and Nantes on D-Day, June 6, 1944 - for which he named the B-17.

"He always told his crew, `You do your job, and I'll do mine, and with the grace of God, we'll get home safely,'" Mr. Steele said.

He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for extraordinary achievement during missions against German military and industrial installations.

He was discharged with the rank of lieutenant in 1945 and remained active in the Air Force Reserves until retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1979.

Mr. Volrath returned to U.S. Chemicals, later FMC, where he was supervisor of plant management. He retired in 1982.

"He was a very self-deprecating man and didn't talk about the war too much. I never saw his medals until 1967 after a Christmas dinner. He kept his Distinguished Flying Cross in a small cloth bag in a drawer in a china closet," Mr. Steele said.

"He's a hero, and that's why we're free," he said.

Services were held yesterday for Mr. Volrath at Curtis Bay United Methodist Church, where he was a longtime member.

Survivors include his wife of 59 years, the former Frances Reiher; two sons, Roger L. Volrath of Sykesville and David A. Volrath of Bel Air; a brother, Vincent Volrath of Glen Burnie; two sisters, Vera Amsden of Orlando, Fla., and Yvonne Steele of Arnold; and two grandsons.

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