By Kevin Rieders, 52nd Fighter Wing Historian Office
/ Published March 13, 2009
SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany --
Everyone who has studied the Promotion Fitness Guide even a little bit should know something about Tech. Sgt. Sator "Sandy" Sanchez.
March 15, was the 64th anniversary of Sergeant Sanchez's death. It is also the 43rd anniversary of efforts by 52nd FW Sabers to honor an Air Force hero; among one the most highly decorated Airmen of World War II.
Born Satero Sierra March 22, 1921, in Joliet, Ill., Sergeant Sanchez's childhood was beset with hardships. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was two and a half years old. His father remarried five years later, but died in 1929, when he was shot outside a tavern. He and his older sister, Magdelena, lived with their stepmother, Joquina Sanchez, until she also died, in 1934. Both children then went to live with their step-grandparents, Fidencio and Belen Sanchez.
In high school, Sator belonged to the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, and in the summer worked for the forestry service. After graduation, he joined the civilian conservation corps, learning mechanics and surveying in the states of Wisconsin and Montana. He enlisted in the Army at Camp McCoy, Wis., Dec. 20, 1939. Initially assigned to the 7th Infantry at Vancouver Barracks, Wash., he transferred to the Army Air Corps in May, 1941 as a mechanic, and moved with his unit to Merced Army Air Field (later to be known as Castle Air Force Base), a few miles from San Francisco, Dec. 11, 1941.
He rose through the ranks, and by mid-1942, he held the rank of Sergeant. A week shy of his 22nd birthday, Sergeant Sanchez was walking down the flight line on the morning of March 14, 1943, when he saw a crewless BT-13 running toward other aircraft lined up on the ramp in front of a maintenance hangar. Sandy chased down the aircraft, climbed into the rear cockpit and brought the training aircraft to a stop as it crashed into another aircraft. Confining the damage to only two aircraft and averting the loss of life that would have resulted had the errant aircraft crashed into the maintenance hangar earned him Soldiers Medal.
His subsequent request to attend gunnery training and become a combat crewman came back approved, along with a promotion to staff sergeant. Sergeant Sanchez arrived in England in mid-August 1943, after completion of basic gunnery training, reported to the 12th Reinforcement Control Depot, and in turn, then to the 95th Bombardment Group, 334th Bombardment Squadron Aug. 24, 1943. The 95th Bomb Group, based at Horham, Suffolk, England, had flown their first mission May 13, 1943. Since then, they had flown 31 bombing missions over occupied Europe and Germany, losing 33 aircraft and more than 360 men. He flew with unit for the first time just a week later and earned promotion to technical sergeant April 15, 1944. Crewmen were required to fly 25 combat missions before they were eligible to rotate out of combat.
Sergeant Sanchez flew his 44th combat mission, a record for a combat crewmember in the European theater of operations May 12, 1944. A newly arrived B-17 had its nose emblazoned with a caricature of him, the name Smilin' Sandy Sanchez and the number 44. This was the first, and only, such tribute to a crewmember in the entire 8th Air Force. It was also the only B-17 known to have been named for an enlisted Airman.
Sergeant Sanchez was awarded a Silver Star medal and returned to the U.S. for duty as a gunnery instructor after his 44th mission. He persistently requested return to combat.
In September 1944, his request was granted when he received orders to begin his third combat tour with the 15th Air Force in Italy assigned to the 353rd Bomb Squadron, 301st Bomb Group. He flew his first combat mission with the 353rd BS in November 1944.
Sergeant Sanchez volunteered for a mission to bomb an oil plant at Ruhland, Germany March 15, 1945. During his 66th mission he manned the top gun turret position as engineer and was top turret gunner. During the bomb run, the aircraft was hit by flak and severely damaged. All nine other crewmembers bailed out and became POWs. The B-17 went into a flat spin, flipped over on its back, exploded and crashed near Bad Muskau, Germany. Six weeks later, the war in Europe ended.
Sergeant Sanchez was declared dead in October 1945. His remains continue to be unidentified and perhaps unrecovered, although evidence suggests graves registration personnel may have found his body and interred it as an unknown soldier in one of the American Army's European battle cemeteries.
Sergeant Sanchez is credited with six kills. His decorations include the Distinguished Flying Cross, Silver Star, Soldier's Medal and Air Medal with 10 oak leaf clusters.
So, what does this riveting story have to do with the 52nd FW?
Bad Muskau is in the former East Germany, near the Polish Border. In 1993, the tail section of his aircraft was discovered, being used as part of a farmer's shed near the crash site. Nine members of the 52nd Equipment Maintenance Squadron with four surviving crewmembers, recovered the tail section of B-17 42-97683 for the National Museum of the United States Air Force, where it remains on display March 15, 1996.
The 52nd FW dedicated Spangdahlem's first 1+1 dormitory in honor of Sergeant Sanchez Dec. 8, 1998.
So, when driving past "Sanchez Hall," you will know "the rest of the story" of a heroic Airman, and the contributions of Sabers to honor his selfless service, his ultimate sacrifice; to preserve our proud heritage.