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.

He got in touch with his former commanding officer, retired Lt. Col. James C. Dooley, who drafted a sharply worded letter on his behalf, calling the Commendation Medal "inappropriate" and recommending that Mr. Moreno receive the DSC.

"It is inconceivable that there is no way to set aside or to waive the administrative constraints that now seem to keep us from recognizing a person who is clearly a bona fide hero by anyone's definition," Mr. Dooley wrote.

"Bob" Moreno, a member of the 766th Bomb Squadron, 461st Bomb Group, based in Italy, had perhaps one of the war's most terrifying jobs: nose-turret gunner in a B-24 Liberator facing Nazi fighter planes over Europe. Directly behind him sat the bombardier.

After bombing factories in Budapest on April 13, 1944, the formation was attacked by enemy fighters. The B-24 above was hit and sliced down into Sergeant Moreno's aircraft. His pilot or co-pilot pushed the bale-out alarm.

Sergeant Moreno's plane was so badly damaged that he and the bombardier -- the lieutenant -- could not reach the large bomb bay at the center of the aircraft, their No. 1 escape route. Their only hope was the tiny escape hatch into the wheel well for the landing gear in the nose.

At 6 feet 3 inches and 220 pounds, the lieutenant would be lucky to get through at all. With an open chute, he had almost no chance.

"Whether I would have made it out the nose wheel door will never be known," Robert B. Hovey wrote, recalling that day. "I was something of a fatalist at that stage of the war and would have taken any chances. Bob would not hear of it."

No time for fear

The young sergeant, 5 feet 6 and 135 pounds, insisted that the officer take his chute. Then he strapped on the opened parachute and prepared to jump.

Mr. Moreno says he did not think he would survive, but there was no time for worry or fear.

He believes the B-24 was traveling about 200 miles an hour when he jumped. The blast of air knocked the folds of the chute from his arms. Though the canopy did not snag, it did not open properly.

As he fell, he frantically pulled lines to yank open some of the parachute panels. Two enemy planes approached, and he figured he was about to become target practice. He waved at them. But the planes did not fire, and he says the slipstream they created lifted him and popped the chute open sufficiently to allow him to make it safely to the ground.

The pilot and co-pilot did not survive; eight crewmen did.

The DSC has become important to Mr. Moreno as a tangible symbol of the events of that day. His war experience is perhaps the most significant chapter in his life, he says.

"Everybody wants to be recognized for something," he says. "If you don't have proof, you don't have any way to tell anybody about your experience."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad