OGDEN, Utah --
After flying a combat mission, all retired Captain Bryant Lyons wanted to do was sit back and let someone else do the flying, but the Army Air Forces had other plans.
“They said, ‘we gotta get this plane home and you’re the closest one,’” Lyons said. “They were supposed to put me in a C-54 transport plane, but they had to get a few of the old ones back. And I’ll be darn, they made me fly nine days halfway around the world.”
This was just one of the many memories the World War II veteran shared last week as he sat amongst family, friends, and Airmen from the 67th Aerial Port Squadron, who gathered to celebrate his 100th birthday here in Ogden, Utah.
Born on April 9, 1923, Lyons grew up in Burley, Idaho and after high school, found work as a civilian down in Utah to build what is now Hill Air Force Base.
“When I worked there it used to be just a hill,” he laughed. “We were building the barracks with a shovel.”
After the United States’ entry into the war, Hill AFB became a vital maintenance and supply base to support the war effort. With the influx of people arriving to work there, housing became scarce, but locals opened their doors to assist.
“I slept on a screened-in porch for three months,” he said. “The lady of the house made us breakfast, but the rest of the day we were on our own.”
His time in Utah would take a temporary pause when on February 23, 1943, 19-year-old Lyons enlisted into the Army Air Forces and headed down to the Aviation Cadet Center at Santa Ana Army Airfield in California.
Determined To Fly
If Lyons knew one thing it was that he didn’t want to be on the ground, so he set his eyes for the sky.
“Everybody couldn’t become pilots,” he said. “They weeded out, and then weeded out some more. Then if you could pass the test, you could be a pilot.”
His daughter recalled a story he shared with her showing his determination in achieving this goal despite lacking the required two-year college degree.
“Dad thought, ‘well I want to be a pilot,’” she said. “He went to take the test and was the first one done. The guy asked, ‘are you sure you don’t want to spend more time?’ but dad said he was done, and he passed.”
During his time in service as a North American B-25 Mitchell Pilot and Bombardier with the 487th Bomb Squadron and 340th Bomb Group, Lyons flew a total of 67 combat missions throughout the European Theatre. 55 of which were flown before he turned 21.
“We were just kids,” he said. “We didn’t decide the mission, we just carried it out. I think younger people are the bedrock of whatever unit you’re in, but you learn something new on every mission.”
Ready to Fly, Fight, and Win
“All of our training was done during missions,” Lyons said. “We had long ones and short ones. The short ones were the hardest to get to and the hardest to get out because of the flak.”
Many of his missions were flown along the Brenner Pass between Austria and Italy, targeting railroad bridges to weaken Axis defenses. To accomplish this task, Lyons had to face one of the most feared weapons of the war, the German 8.8 cm Flak.
Before flying into the canyon pass, they would send one plane out from the formation to pinpoint where the shooting was coming from. Once the location was identified, Lyons and his B-25 were able to fly in.
“I dropped the first phosphorus bomb in the war,” he said.
Not only did the phosphorus melt through the metal flak, but the smoke also hid the rest of the formation. On the way back, the Germans were able to triangulate where the aircraft was and stated, “We know you just dropped phosphorus and we’re going to come after you. We have your plane number.”
Heroism in the face of danger
The bravery and skill Lyons exhibited during combat earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross, an award given to individuals who display “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”
As a moment of silence filled the packed room, one of Lyon’s sons stood up holding a stack of old paper held together by a clipboard and read the citation for his father’s Distinguished Flying Cross.
On 31 January 1945, Lt. Lyons flew as flight leader in a formation attacking a railroad bridge at Rovereto, Italy. Displaying great courage and superior leadership as he skillfully maneuvered through intense and accurate anti-aircraft fire upon the approach to the target, Lt. Lyons’ perfect run over the object enabled his bombardier to release his bombs with devastating effect upon this vital bridge. On fifty-five combat missions his outstanding proficiency and steadfast devotion to duty have reflected great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of the United States.
The award may be given on an individual level, but Lyons acknowledges and remembers how important camaraderie is amongst fellow service members.
“We were a great group of people,” Lyons said. “You would get on the ground and shake each other’s hand after every mission. We were a group and took care of each other.”
A life after service
After his service to our nation, Lyons made the decision to exit in 1945 and return home.
“I could have stayed in,” he said. “I was already a captain so I could have done well, but you know I kind of just wanted to get back to my mom and be at home.”
He settled down in Ogden, Utah with his wife and children, a place where he’s resided for the past 68 years. Throughout the years, he’s made it a priority to carry on the camaraderie he obtained during his service and traveled with his children to meet fellow veterans at reunions.
“I took my son to D.C., my daughter to Los Angeles, and then also to South Carolina. They were able to sit and eat with them,” he said. “There was a reunion in Washington D.C., and they found out we were there. The President of the United States came by, just because we were there.”
Lyons noted that while he wasn’t looking for any grandeur, the memory brought him to tears and suddenly an overflowing of emotion began to engulf everyone in the room.
“You saved the world dad,” said one of his daughters.
“He’s the world’s best dad,” said another. “He took good care of us.”
Legacy of honor
While everyone in attendance was there to celebrate the centenarian’s birthday, they also sought to celebrate and honor Lyon’s service to the nation. He received a personalized hand-stitched quilt from Quilts of Valor, and framed photos of him receiving his DFC award and a B-25, as well as a unit patch from the Lt. Col. Justin Crump, vice commander of the 67th APS.
“We have the Air Force Creed and there are two lines that talk about a legacy of honor and a tradition of valor,” said CMSgt Brandon De Los Reyes from the 67th APS. “And when we talk about someone who served at that time, that’s you.”
Today, we are the World’s Greatest Air Force because of Captain Bryant O. Lyons and the other brave men and women who served before us. The legacy they left behind continues to inspire us to Aim High… Fly, Fight and Win.