My 89-year old mom and I will visit Sunset Lane today–our hometown cemetery–to honor loved ones on Memorial Day. The scenic property overlooking Sinclair Inlet will be bedecked with 200 American flags honoring those who fought for our freedom.
We will walk the grounds and place home-grown flowers by the tombstones of our loved ones. We must never forget their love of God and family, and their devotion to our country.
“Forgetting” should be considered a sin in our lives.
Every Memorial Day I love to honor my “Uncle Dick” Boehme who gave his life for our country.
He is the Bravest Boehme.
The Bravest Boehme
Of the ten official holidays on the American calendar, some commemorate secular events and others point to spiritual realities. Memorial Day stands out as our most “combined” holiday because our remembrance of those who died for our freedom mirrors the death of Jesus Christ for our eternal salvation.
In both cases, God wants never to forget John 15:13: “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
That’s what my uncle did seventy-seven years ago. He is pictured above in a 1945 photograph of the B-24 Liberator Bombers of the 485th Squadron of the U. S. Army. My uncle is in the front row, far right of the picture.
Here’s his heroic story.
Richard Boehme was the second son born to Herman and Lucille Boehme in 1922 in Akron, Ohio (my dad was their firstborn). By all accounts he was smart, athletic, and a man of faith. While in his early twenties, Dick joined the U.S. military and headed out to fight the Germans in the western theater of World War II.
In the spring of 1945, a somber member of the US Army knocked on my grandparents’ door to inform them that Dick was missing in action. For a year following, my grandma 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 knew little information on Dick’s death. Then, in the early 2000’s, a man named Jerry Whiting tracked down my dad to say he was writing a book in memory of his own father and all those who 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 military files and collecting information. He traveled to Europe to interview folks who had met his dad and “band of brothers” and knew something about their story including soldiers, villagers, and even a Catholic priest.
When the book arrived, our family was ecstatic. Finally we learned what had happened to “Uncle Dick”– a brave member of the 485th 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 what happened.
October 16, 1944
Dick was captain of a B-24 Liberator that bombed 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 completion of the mission, they ran low on fuel and were 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 a battle between Chetniks and Partisans. On the run for a month, he finally made a safe return to Italy thirty days after his second crash.
Final Mission: February 16, 1945
Uncle Dick was again captaining the squadron when, after bombing their target, they came under heavy anti-aircraft fire near 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 22 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 airmen and give them a proper burial near the summit of Mount Belepeit. We, their relatives, are deeply grateful.
Over the past seventy years, villagers make 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 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 other 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?
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 courageous like my Uncle Dick.
He is the bravest Boehme.