The Bravest Boehme

brav·er·y (ˈbrāv(ə)rē): courageous behavior or character. Synonyms:courage, valor, intrepidity, nerve, daring, fearlessness, audacity, boldness, dauntlessness, stoutheartedness, heroism.

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

The closest I ever got to serving in the military was when I was drafted for the Viet Nam War and took my physical. At the last medical station I told the doctor I wanted to be a missionary. He looked at my file and said he would declare me 4-F (unfit), exclaiming: “I think God’s army needs more soldiers than man’s army.”

Thus my missions career was launched.

Now forty-five years later, I still have great respect for the military which we recently honored on Memorial Day. As we visited the grave sites, I thought deeply about the only uncle I’ve never met. He gave his life for his country in World War II.

He was the bravest Boehme.

My father was the oldest of six children, born and raised in Akron, Ohio. The second child born to Herman and Lucille Boehme was Richard. I am told that he was smart, athletic, and religious (in their traditional Lutheran home). While in his early twenties, “Uncle Dick” joined the US military and headed out to fight the Germans in the western theatre of World War II.

One day in the spring of 1945, a somber member of the US Army knocked on my grandparents’ door and informed them that Dick was missing in action in Europe. For over a year, my grandmother dried her tears with the hope that Dick would be found and come home. Then came the heart-breaking news. He had been shot down and killed on February 16, 1945–just seven months before the war ended.

For decades, our family was given little information on Dick’s death. Then, in the early 2000s, a man named Jerry Whiting tracked down my father to let him know that he was writing a book in memory of his own dad and all those that served in his squadron–including my uncle. (The book is called I’m Off to War, Mother But I’ll Be Back.)

Jerry Whiting would answer many questions about Dick’s last months on earth.

Whiting spent decades combing through military files and collecting information. He traveled to Europe to interview folks who’s met his dad and “band of brothers” and knew something about their story. They included soldiers, villagers, and even a Catholic priest.

When the book arrived, our family was ecstatic. Finally we would learn what had happened to “Uncle Dick”– a brave member of the 485 Bomb Squadron stationed in Italy. The biggest revelation? He had been shot down three times in the space of five months.

It takes great bravery to keep going under those circumstances. Here’s the story.

October 16, 1944

Dick was captain of a B-28 Liberator that bombed some German military factories in Austria. After failing to fire on the first target due to clouds, the squadron went on to their second priority, the Neudorf Aircraft Factory at Graz. Upon finishing the assignment, they were running low on fuel and would not make it back to Italy. They’d also been hit by incoming “flak” from German guns.

Uncle Dick put out the Mayday signal and all of them parachuted out of the plane as it crashed into the waters off Yugoslavia. One of Uncle Dick’s mates hit the water, swam to shore and was found by a village girl named Narija Glavan who gave him clothes to wear and hid him in a hole in the ground from the occupying Germans.

Uncle Dick landed in the water a few miles from his buddies. The Germans saw his parachute descending and fired at him in the air–but missed. He started swimming, but was caught up in the parachute. Two local Yugoslav cousins, Niko and Nikica Peros, jumped into action from shore. Here’s how Whiting tells the story:

“The Peros cousins saw Boehme struggling in the water…They swam out to Boehme and Nikica cut Boehme free from the parachute lines and both helped him to shore. As they swam, the Germans started shooting at them with machine guns. The Germans were less than a mile away, so the three men got out of the immediate area as quickly as possible.”

“They took Boehme to the village of Zaton. The villagers gave him civilian clothes and hid him from the Germans who were searching the entire area for missing flyers…The villagers refused to betray Boehme, so the Germans shelled the village, ultimately killing a young girl in the barrage.”

Helped on by the locals, Uncle Dick walked, hid, and traveled north for a week staying near the coastline. He was finally smuggled onto some islands and evacuated to Vis. From there he returned to Italy where he was awarded a Silver Star.

November 17, 1944

Three weeks later, Uncle Dick volunteered for another combat mission. His plane was again shot down while returning from Blechhammer, Yugoslavia. Details are scarce are this mission, but he eventually found himself in the midst of a battle between Chetniks and Partisans. On the run for a month, he finally made a safe return to Italy one month after his second crash.

The Final Mission: February 16, 1945

Uncle Dick was once again captaining the squadron when, after bombing their target, they came under heavy anti-aircraft fire in the vicinity of the Italian/Austrian border. Whiting describes the scene as two aircraft were fatally hit:

“Both planes broke apart after the mid-air collision. The tail was sliced off Tomhave’s plane (piloted by Uncle Dick) and part of the nose broke off. Major Olen Cooper Bryant (the navigator) was thrown through a hole in the nose of the plane, unconscious from the concussion of the direct hit. He fell from an altitude of about 10,000 feet without a parachute, landing in heavy snow.”

Miraculously, Bryant survived!  Others parachuted from the two doomed planes–but not my uncle. The planes crashed near each other below the crest of Mount Belepeit, near the Slovenian border in northern Italy–west of the village of Chiusaforte.  Those who lost their lives were John Carmody (navigator), James Cahen III (navigator), Marvin Woodcock (bombadier), James Dixon (flight engineer), Bruce Graves (radio operator), and Captain Richard Boehme (pilot).

Uncle Dick was 23 years old.

On February 27, 1945, after ten days of severe weather, Father Giovanni B. Lenarduzzi led twenty-five local villagers up the mountain to locate the remains of the American airmen and give them a proper burial–near the summit of Mount Belepeit. We, their relatives, are deeply grateful.

In the past forty years, a number of the villagers have made an annual trip up the mountain to honor the American flyers were fought for their freedom. My dad’s letters contain e-mails from those folks–one as recent as 2005–which shows the tree-lined hillside of the mountain (in summertime) and numerous remains of the crash that are buried beneath the leaves and vegetation.

My uncle was a hero. He loved his God, family, and nation and gave his life that we might enjoy ours.

I think now of what Uncle Dick might have done if he lived past 23.  Would he have become a doctor, pharmacist, office manager, or logger like his older brothers?  Would he have moved to the west coast with the rest of his family? Had children, grandchildren?  Lived into his nineties like his older brother, my dad?

How would he have continued to serve the God of his fathers? He never had that chance. He laid down his life for others–just like his Lord did for the sins of the world.

Let’s never forget the heroes. Let’s emulate their faith and commitment. In my latter years, I want to be brave like my Uncle Dick.

I’ll always consider him the bravest Boehme.

 

 

 

 

 

 

He also lived the shortest life–23 years.

 

Dick was a fighter pilot in Europe during World War II. We found out sixty years after his death that he was shot down three times in his service of America. The first was on October 16, 1944 after a bombing mission over Austria. He parachuted into the Adriatic Sea, was miraculously rescued by a local villager, and hidden from the Germans until he escaped to safety.

One month later, on November 17, 1944, he was again shot down over Yugoslavia and had to spend a month running from the Nazis before making his way back to Italy.

On February 16, 1945, his squadron was hit for the third time and one of his own aircraft tore off the wing and tail of his plane. One of the crew members was thrown from the burning cockpit and fell 10,000 feet without a parachute into a snowbank high in the Alps–and lived! He told the story of the squadron that was published in two books sixty years after these heroic young men gave their lives.

Dick died in the third crash. His body was buried on the hillside by grateful villagers and some of his remains eventually returned to the United States. He gave his life for our country just fourth months before V-E day.

He never got to see it.

But he lives on–and so do the rest of my family and friends who put their trust in Christ. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will never die” (John 11:25).

As I stood by my father’s grave, and thought about the sacrifice that Dick had made for our family and nation, a deep sense of gratitude and resolve rose up within me. There are things worth living and dying for.

Memorial Day reminded me, once again, of that important truth.

All of us who are still alive in this busy and distracted 21st century must slow down, think deeply, andremember.

Especially the heroes God wants us to follow.

4 Comments

  1. Robert Fried, Ed. D. on December 4, 2017 at 4:42 am

    Dear Ron,

    I was so happy to hear from you, and to know another nephew of one of the ten memorialized from the mission.
    I was very lucky to have found my uncle’s place in this history. From my mother, I knew that Uncle Milt had volunteered for the Air Corps, and was killed in action. I wanted to honor his service and sacrifice, found his high school yearbook photo, and a page in Ancestry.com on his death on Feb. 16, 1945 and burial in Italy. I thought this would be all I could share in loving tribute, until, one night, I decided to Google “Staff Sergeant Milton Wolfson.” It led me to Jerry and the history of Mission 139.
    I attended a couple of the Reunions, the final one in 2015. At one of the Reunions I met a nephew of James Cahan III, and got a good photograph – he was the other Jewish airman killed on the mission. I did not meet any veterans who remembered my uncle, but would have been surprised if I did. Nonetheless, it was powerful and moving being there.
    More personally: I grew up in New Jersey, where Uncle Milt lived when he volunteered. In 1990, I met my future wife, and moved to Brooklyn, where I have lived since. My “lucky Google” took place at this very desk 6 years ago.
    Please call me Bob, and I trust that Ron is good for you. The distance geographically between us is great, but we share a strong bond in our personally family histories. In my presentation at West Point last night (small group), I mentioned that I had spoken with the nephew of Richard Boehme, and had heard from him. May this continue.

    Best wishes,

    Bob

  2. Ron Boehme on November 23, 2017 at 3:00 am

    Dear Dr. Fried,

    It was wonderful to hear from you and learn also of your uncle’s heroism in World War II alongside my own uncle, Richard “Dick” Boehme.

    For decades following WWII, the Boehme family remained in the dark about the circumstances of Uncle Dick’s death as well as his other near escapes. My father, Robert, the eldest of the six Boehme children, (Dick was number two) heard from Jerry Whiting probably about the same time you did and was delighted to receive his two books subsequently. Closure was a long time in coming, but we are grateful for the questions that were answered. My father passed away at age 94 in 2013.

    It now falls to me to keep before our family and the world the heroism of Uncle Dick and many others–to whom we are deeply grateful. I have not visited the sites in Italy, but did my Bible training in Germany, have visited my uncle’s gravesite in Canton, Ohio and also his memorial at the Punchbowl in Honolulu, Hawaii. I’m sorry to have never met Uncle Dick, but greatly look forward to our reunion in heaven.

    I served as a global missionary with Youth With A Mission for forty years and now am Professor of Leadership and Inter-Cultural Studies at Faith International University in Tacoma, WA.

    Thanks for keeping the memories alive. Where do you live? I’d love to meet you sometime.

    Sincerely,

    Ron Boehme

  3. Robert Fried, Ed. D. on November 21, 2017 at 5:04 am

    Dear Mr. Boehme,

    I just read your tribute to your brave uncle. My uncle, Staff Sergeant Milton Wolfson, was on the other plane, and killed, along with 3 other airmen on his plane. I discovered this remarkable history of our uncles 6 years ago, helped by the tireless Jerry Whiting. He also pointed me toward Missione 139, written by Enzo Vinci and 2 Italian co-authors. I had the privilege of meeting Enzo and Fabio Orlando (one of the coauthors) a couple of years ago. They live near the mountain where the planes crashed (Enzo has since died). My wife and I viewed the mountain. We also visited my uncle’s grave at the Florence American Cemetery. Jesse Hall and Frank Grippo, also KIA on the mission, also are buried there.

    Over these past few years, I have had the honor of presenting the story of my uncle’s service and sacrifice to veteran’s groups, at our synagogue. In Washington I presented at the National Museum of American Jewish Military History, on Feb. 16, 2015, the 70th anniversary of the mission. In the presentation I include the sacrifice of all ten airmen, naming them and including photographs, where I am able. Your uncle is part of a fine crew photo. Through Jerry Whiting, I found out the correct pronunciation of Boehme. Needless to say, your uncle’s story is particularly compelling and poignant.

    It is painful to consider the youth of these brave airmen. Your uncle was only 23. Mine was only 22. We do honor to their memories by sharing their stories, and particularly with young people. On December 2nd, I will be presenting at the Jewish Chapel at West Point. I am also hoping to present at the high school where I taught for many years. Richard Boehme, Milton Wolfson, and the other 8 airmen who gave their lives on that day must never be forgotten.

    Thank you for posting this tribute. May God bless you, and the memory of your uncle.

  4. Doug Burleigh on June 3, 2016 at 5:07 am

    Great story, Ron. Am in Ukraine for their National Prayer Breakfast which was yesterday attended by the President, Prime Minister, and Speaker of Parliament. These folks understand bravery and war. Two days ago, 5 Ukrainian soldiers were killed, more injured in a surprise attack by the Russian Separatisits. So inspired by the story of Uncle Dick. We stand on the shoulders of men like him.

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