Heroism medal awarded to last survivor of 1955 Cold War military rescue on St. Lawrence Island

The Alaska National Guard held a ceremony in Gambell honoring 16 Alaska Scouts who saved a Navy aircrew after a Soviet attack.

GAMBELL — In June 1955, at the height of summer on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, Alaska National Guard Pvt. Bruce Boolowon of the 1st Scouts, just 20 years old, had to stop egg hunting. He heard the unhealthy whine of a distressed plane engine pass overhead. A few minutes later, he saw a big plume of smoke rising from the other side of the hill near his village of Gambell.

“‘We have to do something,’” Boolowon remembers thinking. “‘We have to try to save them.’ And we did.”

Now 87, Boolowon is the only surviving member of a 16-person search-and-rescue party that responded to the shootdown, crash and explosion of a U.S. Navy plane. The rescuers hurried to the wreck site in umiaks, small hunting boats hulled in walrus hides, and transported the injured crew of 11 back to town, all while the Soviet MiG fighter jets that sprayed the aircraft with unprovoked bullets circled overhead.

“Not one man of the 11 died,” said Adjutant Gen. Torrence Saxe at a ceremony in Gambell on Tuesday to award the Alaska Heroism Medal, one of the state’s highest honors, to Boolowon and surviving family members of the others who kept them alive.

“All 16 of those men who responded were absolute heroes,” Saxe said.

The incident was an international affair when it happened, remarked upon by President Dwight Eisenhower during a speech the next day, and earning a rare apology from the Soviet Union, which admitted there had been an error and offered to pay the United States for damages. The news stayed in the pages of Alaska newspapers for days. They chronicled the rescue, the crewmen’s recoveries and even a trip by two of the Gambell scouts across the United States to receive honors.

“The Eskimo Scouts, with their mission of surveillance and patrolling, have been extended the traditional Navy ‘Well Done’ by Rear Admiral K. Craig, Commander, Alaskan Sea Frontier,” said an Aug. 10, 1955, article in the Anchorage Daily Times about citations awarded to the rescuers.

But over the decades, there was never an official state commendation for the Alaska guardsmen. After years of research, and multiple attempts at a ceremony scrapped by bad weather, including last fall’s Merbok storm, the Alaska National Guard was finally able, this week, to recognize Boolowon and the families of the original rescuers in Gambell for their exceptional act of courage and compassion.

An international crisis averted

The 1955 incident was a tragic mistake, but without the prompt rescue by the Gambell guardsmen, some members of the injured crew would have probably died, according to one survivor’s recollection decades later, likely creating an international crisis between the world’s two rival superpowers.

In a 2015 account in the Anchorage Daily News, David Assard, the plane’s navigator, explained how the Kodiak-based Navy crew was flying over the Bering Strait as part of a routine surveillance mission. At the time, the American military was turning Alaska into a cornerstone of its Cold War defense policy, staging assets all over and building radar surveillance stations along remote parts of the state as part of an early warning system to spot Soviet long-range bombers that might stream over the pole to attack the United States or Europe.

That was why a Navy twin-engine P2V-5 patrol bomber was in international air space over the Bering Strait to begin with.

“It was flying at 8,000 feet some 40 miles off Siberia and 200 miles west of Nome, checking on American lighthouses and buoys and checking ice break-up in the Bering Strait. A large fleet of ships was to pass through the Arctic Ocean and Beaufort Sea laden with supplies and equipment for the Distant Early Warning System,” said a 1975 article of the Anchorage Sunday Times that mentioned the incident.

“Quite literally out of the blue something was about to happen,” Saxe said, recounting the event to a crowd of more than 300 people in Gambell, some of whom witnessed the aftermath first hand in 1955.

At least two Soviet MiGs — accounts of how many exactly vary — appeared suddenly and strafed the Neptune with machine-gun fire that tore into the plane and set the left engine afire.

“The airplane was taking hits all over,” Saxe said.

The pilot, Lt. Richard Fischer, managed to divert fuel away from the burning wing and dive to extinguish the fire. With few options available, he managed to get the bullet-riddled plane close enough to the western edge of St. Lawrence Island for a “belly landing” on the tundra. A rock ripped into the fuselage, causing an explosion.

“It burned just about everyone on the aircraft,” Saxe said.

A front page Anchorage Daily Times article a week after the incident showed a picture of the seven most severely injured men, “Their faces covered with a solid mass of burns and their hands swollen with pain,” according to the unnamed author. “The remaining three men, although suffering lesser burns, had bullet or shell wounds in their bodies and limbs as souvenirs of the surprise attack which almost sent their large plane into the chilled sea water.”

“They fully expected to be captured,” Saxe said.

Instead, guardsmen showed up in umiaks with small outboard motors. Four vessels ferried medical supplies to the crash site and the injured men to Gambell, delivering them to the Presbyterian church, where a nurse stabilized them and attended to their wounds. Hours later, another military plane touched down in Gambell to evacuate the crew to the hospital at Elmendorf Air Force Base.

Even those who didn’t participate directly in the rescue recall the day it happened.

“The tractor pulled them over to the airport. They were so pitiful,” said Beulah Nowpakahok, who was 10 or 11 years old when she saw the injured crewmen.

“It was the most beautiful day in Gambell. I remember that,” said Edna Apatiki, a retired high school teacher who was 4 the day of the crash.

Most of the information that came out in the days and weeks after the incident focused on the injured crewmen and their recoveries. But a few items noted the pilgrimage made by two of the rescue participants to Washington, D.C. and beyond to receive honors. In addition to receiving certificates of commendation from military brass, M. Sgt. Willis Walunga, 31, and Sgt. L. C. Clifford Iknokmok flew to California “where they participated in numerous parades, posed for pictures with stars of TV, stage and screen and appeared on TV programs in Los Angeles and Hollywood,” said a 1955 story in the Anchorage Times.

But the praise was not spread evenly among the many rescue participants, nor did it last very long: accounts of the incident largely disappearing from public consciousness in Alaska and beyond.

“None for us,” Boolowon said of the accolades at the time. “I think it’s good to be awarded all these years later.”

‘The last true sea ice hunters’

Tuesday’s ceremony was almost called off all over again. Just 20 minutes out from landing on St. Lawrence Island, a turn in the weather dropped visibility to almost nothing, threatening to send a HC-130J Combat King full of guardsmen, state officials, media and four Alaska Military Youth Academy cadets back to where they came from.

A ground storm greeted the guests, who piled on in ones and twos onto the backs of idling four-wheelers for a ride to the school, down a road that alternated between thigh-high snow drifts and patches of glare ice wind-scoured down to the gravel. Meat racks, umiak frames and the occasional pincer of whale bones poked out of the snow dunes.

The John Apangalook School’s mascot is the Qughsatkut, the king polar bears, giant mythological beasts that once stalked the far north, and splayed across the wall behind the basketball backboard is an enormous white ursine hide. After arriving, guardsmen frantically set up chairs, folding tables and a lectern for the ceremony. The bleachers filled with school kids, elders seated in the first row, and camo-clad guard members shoulder to shoulder with young men in tree-form camo hunting jackets; others wore Carhartt bibs, fur-ruffed parkas, snow-goggles still speckled from the squall outside, and a few women in qipaghaqs, the Siberian Yupik style of kuspuq. One young boy, there to receive an ancestor’s award with his family, wore a black tuxedo with a perfectly knotted bow-tie.

The ceremony itself was brief. The four youth academy cadets posted colors with flags they’d brought from Anchorage. Heads bowed for an invocation offered in Siberian Yupik. Though members of Gambell’s 1st Scouts received official letters of appreciation for their heroism in 1955, the Alaska National Guard has worked since 2015 to upgrade the commendation to something more befitting the scale of heroism at play in the rescue.

“It started off with a story. Someone came in and told us these National Guard members went out and rescued those Navy fliers,” said Verdie Bowen, Director of the state’s Office of Veterans Affairs. “They received a letter of appreciation. Which for us was not correct, that was not the appropriate award for their kind of valor. And so that’s why we had to build a case to make sure that they had actually earned the heroism medal.”

Bowen and his staff spent years trying to track down Navy records of the incident and cross reference information with National Guard files to confirm the individuals involved.

“None of this stuff is computerized, it’s all old-school paper stuck in a warehouse somewhere. It took us a lot longer than usual,” Bowen said.

The Alaska Heroism Medal is given to members of the Alaska National Guard who demonstrate true heroism or “exceptionally meritorious service beyond the call of duty,” according to the Guard.

Jerome Apatiki, who accepted one of the medals on behalf of his late father, Holden Apatiki, Sr., plans to display it in his house for visitors and his grandchildren, one of whom, 3-year-old Rylan, was sleeping in his arms.

“He used to tell me a lot about the story about how it happened, when it happened, when they first seen the smoke,” Apatiki said of his father. “They sprang into action right away. Everyone gathered up, especially the Guard members.”

His father was proud of how the community responded to the crash, and told the story about that day until the end of his life.

“I wish they were here, too. But they’re not here anymore,” Boolowon said of the other 15 men involved in the rescue. “I feel honor with them.”

His son-in-law, Merle Apassingok, said for his whole life Boolowon has worked to keep his community safe and strong, a leader for many years in the local search and rescue crew.

“He saved many lives. If they’re lost, if they’re overdue, he’s one of the first to go out looking for them,” Apassingok said. “The community wanted to recognize him when he was still going out … to recognize his great efforts out in the search and rescue. And he just said ‘it’s none of your business. That’s my problem.’ So, he doesn’t like recognition.”

He described Boolowon as “one of the last true sea ice hunters,” men willing to spring into action, able to navigate the harshest terrain, whether it’s to search for an overdue traveler, harvest wild animals from the pack ice or rescue shot-down military flyers in a skin boat.

“Most hunters out here are like that,” Apassingok said. “They’ll just go out at a moment’s notice.”

ADN’s Marc Lester contributed to this report.

Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers Anchorage government, the military, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. He also helps produce the ADN's weekly politics podcast. Prior to joining the ADN, he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.