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.