Sixty-seven years after heroic rescue Gambell guardsmen are to be honored
By Peter Loewi
On July 9, one veteran and 13 family representatives in Gambell will receive the Alaska Heroism Medal for a 1955 rescue of a downed U.S. Navy plane. Verdie Bowen, director of the Office of Veterans Affairs said in a press release that ”No matter how long it takes, we are dedicated to honoring those that served with valor.”
Bruce Boolowon is the last surviving rescuer, and he and his daughter Mary spoke with The Nome Nugget about the event. “It’s about time!” he joked. The press release explained that each member received a Letter of Appreciation for their actions at the time, but there were said to be “no medals in the U.S. or National Guard inventory that could be awarded for their heroism.”
At 87-years-old, Bruce Boolowon is the third oldest person in Gambell, but remembers the day of the rescue well. “We were going out hunting for murre eggs and saw a plane coming down,” he said. “The props didn’t sound too good, like they were down to one engine.” The plane crash landed behind a hill. He explained that there were military vehicles in town that tried to reach the crash site but couldn’t cross the river. Two boats, each with eight to ten people, set out for the site, finding the crew on the beach, some badly injured. Boolowon didn’t have any photos of the events that day, but the wreckage of the Lockheed P2V-5 Neptune can still be found about eight miles from town.
Boolowon was humble in receiving news of the recognition. Asked if he was excited for the ceremony, he said “not particularly. We were just doing our duty. You just can’t sit and watch them burn.” At age 20, he was a corporal in what the press release called the “Alaska Army National Guard’s First Scouts.” In Nome Nugget articles from the time, the rescuers are referred to as the “Ground Observer Corps.”
Accounts of the events of June 22, 1955 were found in several editions of the Nugget. There were varying reports of human injuries, damages to the plane and distances of the crash from Gambell. The first time the news was reported, it wasn’t known yet that the Navy plane, a patrol bomber, had been shot down by Russians. The event did not trigger any military U.S. response as President Dwight D. Eisenhower commented on Wednesday, June 29, 1955 that the incident was a local occurrence and not a matter of Soviet policy.
Most of the articles in the following week focused on the 11 rescued servicemembers. The Associated Press interviewed several of the crewmembers, but little is said of the 14 rescuers who arrived via skin boat from Gambell. The only two named rescuers weren’t even in the Guard: Grace Crossen, Alaska Native service nurse, and the Rev. Elmer Parker. Even the IRA in Gambell was having difficulty identifying all of those involved.
The Alaska National Guard provided the names of the 14 rescuers who are receiving the award: Pfc. Holden Apatiki, Sgt. 1st Class Herbert Apassingok, Cpl. Bruce Boolowon, Cpl. Victor Campbell, Staff Sgt. Clifford Iknokinok, Pfc. Lance Iyakitan, Cpl. Ned Koozaata, Pfc. Luke Kulukhon, Pfc. Woodrow Malewotkuk, Cpl. Joseph Slwooko, Pfc. Roger Slwooko, Pfc. Vernon Slwooko, Pfc. Donald Ungott, and Master Sgt. Willis Walunga. Family representatives of the passed 13 guardsmen will be receiving the award on their behalf.
Boolowon wasn’t entirely sure what the long hold up was, but Mary Boolowon explained that some retired guardsmen who knew about the rescue recommended seeking recognition.
“The community reached out requesting commendation that more accurately recognized the valor of these brave men,” said Bowen.
On Thursday, July 7, there will be a Strait Science presentation by Bowen about the rescue mission, and the public is encouraged to call in.
The official ceremony will be held on July 9 at 2:15 p.m. in the high school gym.
Bruce Boolowon said he’d be there.