The hand of fate

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Surviving warfare

By James G. Smith


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Special to the Selma Times-Journal

Call it the hand of fate, destiny or divine intervention, but some people are left to ponder why they were spared while others perished. Incidents of someone substituting for someone else and being killed occur quite frequently in combat.

Why someone next to you is blown to bits and you survive unscathed is puzzling. It is a question that has plagued combat veterans since the advent of warfare.

No one has thought more on the subject than Frank S. Bolen, B-17 bombardier, United States Army Air Corps, 1942-1945.

While Frank settled the issue within himself many years ago, some struggle for decades trying to answer the question. Being a man of strong faith, Frank credits God first and foremost, but also credits his fervent prayers and his wife, Frances’ prayers, and many other loved ones on his behalf.

Bolen’s B-17 crew assembled in Salt Lake City, Utah, and began practice runs around the southeast honing their skills.

The B-17 crew consisted of Jack R. “Tex” Thompson, pilot, David J. Nelson, co-pilot, Frank S. Bolen, bombardier, Charles F. Bacigalupa, navigator, Blake A. Treece Jr., radio operator, Richard R. Collins, waist gunner, Gerald F. Gillies, tail gunner, Warren D. Godsey, ball turret gunner and Henry F. Kortebein, top turret gunner.

It took nine men to fly, operate, deliver the bombs and defend the B-17.

The crew soon jelled and drew an assignment of delivering a new B-17 to Ireland. The flight took about 10 hours with one stop in Newfoundland.

After dropping the plane off in Ireland for combat modifications, the crew continued to their new duty station Bassingbourn, England arriving there on June 4, 1944.

They were assigned to the 322nd Squadron, 91st Bomb Group (H), of the 8th Air Force.

The new crew drew a combat ready plane named “Chow-hound.”

“Chow-hound” was no stranger to combat having already completed in excess of 50 missions by other crews.

In comparison, the famous B-17 “Memphis Belle” was retired after completing 25 missions, although these missions were at the beginning of the war when formations were not as tight and casualty counts much higher.

Bolen’s crew began practice runs around the English countryside awaiting being placed on the mission board. It came on June 20, 1944, and the first one was certainly no milk run. Hamburg was the target and it was heavily defended with anti-aircraft guns.

Bolen’s baptism in bombing runs was a hair raising experience. Sitting right in the nose of the B-17, it appeared they were flying right into the flak bursting all around them. The white cliffs of Dover sure looked good on return after completing the mission safely.

This same crew, assembled in Salt Lake City, completed 13 missions as a team in “Chow-hound.”

They had become very close personally knowing each other extremely well on and off missions. It was a brotherhood, or one for all and all for one relationship.

Mission 14 was to be a troop support mission on the front lines.

For this mission, Charles Sherrill was selected to replace Bolen on the mission. In order to fly bombing runs on troop support, you had to be checked out by the squadron bombardier and certified to do so. At the time, Bolen hadn’t been certified, therefore, the substitute was made.

Bolen was up early on Aug. 8, 1944, to see his aircrew and plane, “Chow-hound,” off on the mission.

He watched as pilot Tex Thompson skillfully lifted “Chow-hound” off the runway and tucked the landing gear safely away.

“Chow-hound” circled around and headed toward the English Channel and into the rising sun. He stood and watched until the plane was only a speck on the horizon before turning away a little despondent that he wasn’t onboard with his teammates

It was a long wait throughout the day in anticipation of the return from the mission.

Bolen made his way to the waiting area early to greet “Chow-hound” on its arrival. The plane count began with plane after plane circling the airfield before floating down to the tarmac. It was a struggle for some with engines out and visible flak damage to the fuselage.

Crippled and lame, but proud, they came in.

Anxiety increased as more and more came in and still no signs of “Chow-hound.”

Bolen continued to wait long after the main armada had returned in hopes of a delayed return.

As time wore on, anxiety turned into panic with cold sweats and difficulty breathing and swallowing. Finally, news came that “Chow-hound” took a direct hit south of Caen, France and went down with no survivors.

The news was devastating to Bolen.

The entire crew he had trained with and flew 13 missions were all gone.

He was the only remaining member of the original crew left to carry on. A lesser man probably would have had difficulty crawling back into another air plane, but Bolen knew he had to out of respect for his fallen comrades.

As the saying goes, here is where you separate men from boys.

Bolen was integrated into another crew and assigned to the B-17 “My Baby.”

The pilot, David McCarty was from Birmingham, Ala., making the transition for Frank much easier. They flew two missions in “My Baby” before it was grounded for damage repairs.

The next mission to the I.G. Farben Chemical Plant in Ludwigshafen, Germany was flown in “Roxy’s Special.”

On board this mission was David McCarty, pilot, Neil M. Mylin, co-pilot, Donald L. Brazones, navigator, Frank S. Bolen, bombardier, John Cangemi, top turret, Frank F. Trim, Jr., ball turret, Charles E. Beebe, waist guns, Floyd Z. Dillon, tail gun, and Henry R. Schuls, radio operator.

On Sept. 8, 1944, short of the bomb drop near Ludwigshafen, “Roxy’s Special” took a hit ripping off a wing.

A spin ensued pinning Bolen and navigator Don Brazones in their nose bubble followed almost immediately by an explosion blowing them free of the air craft. Bolen and Brazones were the only two survivors of “Roxy’s Special.”

They both parachuted down, but not together, therefore neither knew the fate of the other until later. Bolen eluded capture for 7 days before being picked up and carted off to Stalag Luft 1 near Barth, Germany after interrogations. Brazones had been picked up before Bolen and processed through the channels to Stalag Luft 1. The two were reunited at Stalag Luft 1 where they spent the remainder of the war.

On Sept. 14, 1944, the day Bolen was captured, Frances gave birth to their first child, Linda, in Selma – a child Bolen would not see until returning from imprisonment and the war.

The “Roxy’s Special” crash site was near a Lutheran Church in Ludwigshafen. A very respectful group of Germans removed the remains of the air crew and buried them in the local cemetery. After the war, the remains were turned over to American authorities and they moved them to a National Cemetery in Northern France.

In 1947, Bolen served as casket bearer for David McCarty when he was brought home to rest in Birmingham.

In a strange twist of events, John Cangemi&8217;s remains came up lost. A frantic call from Gaspar Cangemi to Bolen and Brazones in 1993 asked for help in locating his brother’s remains.

They obliged and after working through several Federal agencies were able to find John Cangemi in a cemetery in Minnesota. The family, according to Gaspar Cangemi, were not notified of the burial or his whereabouts. After permission was received to remove the remains, John Cangemi was moved to a family plot in New York.

The crash site of “Chow-hound” went virtually untouched until recently.

Although details of actual events immediately following the crash are at best unclear, it is known French citizens witnessed “Chow-hound” come down and were chased from the scene by German SS troopers. It is also known that three bodies were seen and apparently removed from the wreckage site. The three men, Charles Sherrill, Warren D. Godsey and Richard R. Collins eventually found their way into Overseas American Cemeteries in France.

Not until 2004 did JPAC (Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command) excavate the crash site of “Chow-hound” and recover what remained of this gallant crew. The remains were turned over to the CIL (Central Identification Laboratory) in Hawaii for positive identification.

Finally after 62 years in an ugly scar in the ground near Caen, France, the “Chow-hound” crew is coming home. As far as we know, there had been no activity on this site until now and no monument to these men except the ugly scar in the ground caused by the impact.

JPAC remains vigilant in its pursuit of all sites, but apparently is overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task. Of the 78,000 still unaccounted for from World War II, there remains 35,000 deemed recoverable. How long must these families wait for results? It seems cruel and unjust for families to wait 62 years for closure to these tragic cases.

On Aug. 24, 2006, there will be a special interment at Arlington National Cemetery for the crew of “Chow-hound.”

Bolen’s original crew will finally be laid to rest on American soil. What a wonderful day, and what a sad day too. Home at last these too can claim their rightful place in the white polished markers of Arlington National Cemetery. A place so sacred, it is reserved for our national heroes.

Frank and Frances Bolen will not be able to attend the ceremonies, but will be represented there by David and Linda Bolen McKay, son-in-law and daughter. I’m sure the day won’t pass without some thoughtful reflections by Bolen who remains to bear witness of his fallen comrades.

Welcome home “Chow-hound” crew; may we never forget your contributions to America and freedom around the world.

Information has come forth indicating three bodies were recovered from the “Chow-hound” crash site in 1944, and eventually found their way into Overseas American Cemeteries in France. Those three men were: Charles Sherrill, Warren D. Godsey, and Richard R. Collins.