Lifford French, of Athens, Al, was the most highly decorated World War II serviceman from Limestone County. For “extraordinary heroism in action,” French, a 23-year-old B-17 “Flying Fortress” engineer and top turret gunner, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest decoration of the United States armed forces.
The Athens gunner earned his award on a mission over Nancy, France, on Feb. 6, 1944. His ship, Touch the Button Nell, flown by Lt. Henry Putek of Chicago, Ill., was rocked by an explosion in the cockpit while on the way to target. Although French saw a raging fire in the forward end of the aircraft, and saw the co-pilot, navigator, and bombardier bail out of the stricken ship, he refused to leave because the pilot’s parachute had been burned and it was apparent Putek could not get out of the bomber.
French fought the fire, suffering severe burns and cuts about the face and neck, and finally succeeded in extinguishing it. Putek got the big ship under control, and French, despite the pain of his burns, assumed the co-pilot’s seat in the virtually open cockpit for the remainder of the trip.
Through three fighter attacks, constant anti-aircraft fire, Touch the Button Nell made her way back to England with Putek and French in the cockpit and five heroic gunners at their posts. The condition of the Fortress when Putek landed made the trip almost incredible. There were gaping holes all over, the entire nose had been blown away and many of the controls were gone.
“The heroic actions of Sergeant French, remaining with the plane,” reads the citation, “undoubtedly saved the life of the pilot and made possible the safe return of the airplane. The heroism and devotion to duty displayed on this occasion reflect the highest credit upon Sergeant French and armed forces of the United States.”
The operation was Sgt. French’s 11th mission. After that, he flew 11 more, most of them in Touch the Button Nell II, and two of them over Berlin.