Memorial Day: Monkton couple served in World War II


MONKTON — Helen and Roger Layn were well-known and well-loved members of the Monkton community. 

Married in 1947, the pair settled in the Addison County town and ran the family dairy farm Roger grew up on. Throughout their lives, they remained plugged into the community in many ways — helping out neighbors, volunteering around town and taking part in the antique equipment exhibits at the Addison County Fair & Field Days. 

In addition to their local contributions, Roger and Helen were among the Addison County residents who served their country during World War II; Roger as a B-17 pilot, and Helen as a nurse in the Army Nurse Corps. 

Monkton resident Candace Polzella, one of the couple’s three children, shared with the Independent some of the details of her parents’ service.  

The pair both grew up in the Addison County area and attended Bristol High School. 

After graduating high school in 1940, Helen, then Helen Burritt, went on to complete her nurse’s training at the former Mary Fletcher Hospital in Burlington. She graduated in 1943 and enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps the following year. 

Helen was sent to France, where she served with the 5th Field Hospital as part of the 7th Army. During the war, field hospitals would closely follow combat troops and set up in tents near the front to treat wounded patients. 

According to the U.S. Army Center of Military History, these hospitals were typically assigned 18 nurses and could handle 75-150 patients. Doctors and nurses would perform triage and immediate care on patients at the field hospital and could conduct around 80 operations each day. 

The field hospital Helen served in was among those that supported troops during the Battle of the Bulge, also known as the Ardennes Offensive. The Battle of the Bulge was Germany’s last major offensive on the Western Front during the war, a campaign that was ultimately unsuccessful for German forces, but was very costly in terms of lost lives. Lasting six weeks, the battle was the largest and bloodiest for American forces on the Western Front during the war. 

Helen was promoted to 1st lieutenant in August of 1945 and separated from the Army Nurse Corps a few months later. For her service, she was awarded the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with two Bronze service stars, the American Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal. 

Helen also received a citation from a brigadier-general for outstanding service beyond the call of duty. 

Roger entered the service in 1941, first serving as a bomb service truck driver and automotive mechanic for the Aviation Ordnance Company in Manchester, N.H. He went on to complete elementary flying training in Decatur, Ala., in 1942, was promoted from 2nd lieutenant to 1st lieutenant and assigned to a heavy bomb crew as a co-pilot. 

After graduating as a pilot from advanced flying school in Seymour, Ind., in 1943, Roger was stationed in Bassingbourn, England. He served as a B-17 pilot in the 91st Bombardment Group of the 8th Army Air Force. 

LONGTIME MONKTON RESIDENT Roger Layn, second in from top left, served as a bomber pilot during World War II. He is pictured here with fellow crew members of the B-17 plane “My Prayer” in 1943. Helen Burritt, who later married Roger, also served in the war as a nurse in the Army Nurse Corps. Photo courtesy of Candace Polzella

Among the missions Roger took part in was the Schweinfurt-Regensburg Raid. The strategic bombing mission took place on Aug. 17, 1943, and targeted two sites deep in Germany: the Messerschmitt aircraft factory at Regensburg and ball bearing production plants at Schweinfurt. 

The operation was intended to weaken the German aircraft industry and was a two-pronged strike in which two large forces attacked the separate targets. 

Though the raid was successful in hitting its targets, the mission only temporarily hindered the Germans and resulted in significant losses for American crews. According to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, 60 of the 376 bombers, or around one out of six of those dispatched, were shot down and more than 600 airmen were killed, missing or captured.

ROGER LAYN WAS awarded a Silver Star Medal for his actions in the Schweinfurt-Regensburg Raid during World War II. Layn was a B-17 co-pilot in the mission, during which the aircraft he was on was attacked by German fighters and caught fire.
Photo courtesy of Candace Polzella

Roger was a co-pilot on one of the B-17s sent to Schweinfurt. During the mission, his aircraft was attacked by German fighters near Frankfurt. The aircraft caught fire, went into a dive and fell several thousand feet before Roger and the pilot, Lt. James D. Judy, could level it out. Due to the damage, Judy ordered the crew to bale out, which most did. However, the crew’s top-turret gunner, Sgt. Earl Cherry could not jump out of the aircraft as he was wounded and his parachute was too burned to use. 

Roger and Judy stayed onboard with Cherry, and as the pilot flew, Roger and Cherry worked to put out flames and hold off German fighters. While Judy tried to bring the aircraft home, Roger threw overboard remaining ammunition and other items to lighten the plane, tried to repair control cables to the rudder and attempted to close the jammed bomb bay doors. 

The aircraft ultimately landed in Manston, England, and Roger was awarded a Silver Star Medal for his actions during the mission. The three crew members were all recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor, though they were not awarded it. 

Around six months later, Roger was serving as a gunner on a mission when the aircraft was shot down near Frankfurt. He and other crew members baled out, and Roger spent the next 15 months as a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft 1, a camp for captured airmen near Barth, Western Pomerania, Germany. Roger remained in the camp from Feb. 4, 1944, until it was liberated on May 1, 1945. 

For his service, Roger received an Air Medal, a Prisoner of War Medal and a Vermont National Guard Commendation Medal. 

In the years after returning to Addison County, Helen and Roger were married and started a family that remains deeply invested in the Monkton community. 

Helen died at home in Monkton in 2011, at the age of 89. Roger also died at home in Monkton — this was in 2020, at the age of 100.

Prior to his death, Roger would at times share his experiences in the war with community members through interviews and presentations. He’d also attend the annual banquet for ex-POWs hosted by the Bristol American Legion Post 19, which members of the family still attend today. 

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