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Missing pilot’s clothing, other memorabilia on display
By ANNA BROWN
Jean Blakely Hall says her mother didn't like to talk about her first husband, a World War II bomber pilot whose plane was shot down and his body never returned home.
Jean's mother, Faris "Pat" Boling Bolick Blakely and First Lt. Henry P. “Pete” Bolick Jr., both of Union, were married on April 1, 1943, in Arizona. On Dec. 10, 1943, Bolick's family received notification from the War Department that he was missing in action. Two years later, he was declared dead.
Jean said she and her three sisters were curious about Bolick.
"We had a book with pictures of planes and we would get it out and ask questions," said Jean, a retired teacher who lives in Mauldin. "But my mother wouldn't tell us much."
Pat, who suffered from Alzheimer's, was 84 when she died in 2010. Jean said after her mother went to the nursing home the family found a cedar chest under the house that contained Bolick's dress Army coat, a dress hat and a regular hat, some of his medals, including his Purple Heart; pictures and letters to Pat. Jean said she used some of the items in class when she taught Social Studies. Now retired, she wondered what could be done with the items so that Bolick would not be forgotten.
"My aunt Ruth Burnsed, my mother's sister, (who lives in Union) suggested donating them to the Union County Museum," Jean said.
In May, Jean's husband, Dan, brought the items to museum director Ola Jean Kelly. They will be on display until July 4.
Ola Jean had a link to the Bolick story. In 2011 she had helped connect Bolick's younger sister, Judy Bolick Sparks, to a man in the Netherlands who was working on a tribute to Bolick's crew.
Ola Jean said she is thrilled for the museum to have the Bolick artifacts.
“To me it shows what an important role the museum plays in Union County,” she said.
“Pat was a beautiful woman,” Ola Jean said, holding a portrait of Pat and Pete that is part of the display.
The items are on display next to a World War I ammunition wagon - Pete Bolick's father was a World War I veteran who suffered serious health problems after being exposed to mustard gas.
Judy, who is now 76, said she is glad the items are on display and plans to come to Union soon from her home in Georgia so she can see them.
“I am so glad Pat kept these things and her family members were gracious enough to hold on to them,” she said.
Ola Jean said she was especially glad to see the Bolick items because of the part she had played in connecting Judy with Philippe Vanderdonckt in Ronse, Belgium.
Vanderdonckt sent an email to Ola Jean explaining that he had done research for three years on a B-24 bomber crew that was downed over Bucharest, Romania. The navigator, 2nd Lt. Gilbert Malrait is buried in Vanderdonckt's hometown. The information Vanderdonckt has gathered is bundled in a tribute to Malrait and the crew on a website. Somewhat of a forgotten hero, Malrait was a native of Belgium who joined the United States Army Air Force.
When Malrait was killed, he was not with his original crew. Malrait had trained with a crew that included Pete Bolick as the pilot.
“The whole crew was KIA on Nov. 26, 1943, on a mission to Bremen, Germany and Lt. Bolick is on the tablets of the missing at the Netherlands American Cemetery,” Vanderdonckt wrote.
Vanderdonckt wanted to know more about Bolick and that crew. He asked if the museum's archives included newspaper articles or Bolick's obituary.
“Am looking also to find relatives who still live in the Union County area,” Vanderdonckt wrote. “I must work here in Belgium and it's difficult without help from local people in the family who probably still live in the area. I do this in the only purpose to keep the memory alive of all this young heroes who fought and died for our freedom here in Europe.”
Vanderdonckt said he had adopted graves of American soldiers at the Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium and from time to time he puts flowers on the graves.
He wanted information on the Bolick crew to add to his website so that their memory would “be kept for the next generations.”
Ola Jean knew a few members of the Bolick family. She wrote back to Vanderdonckt that she had checked the telephone director and found none living here now.
“But I think I might have a clue and will follow that up,” she wrote back.
The clue was the fact that Judy had registered to attend the Fabulous Fifties Union High School reunion, which Mrs. Kelly helped to organize, on May 14 that year.
Before the reunion, Ola Jean printed out the emails she and Vanderdonckt had sent to each other and put them in her purse.
That warm May Saturday afternoon, she walked around the Union County Fairgrounds and reminisced with old friends and classmates, some she had not seen in decades. In a group she spotted Ms. Sparks and identified her by the name tag she was wearing.
“I said, 'Judy, I have something for you,' Ola Jean remembers. “She began reading them and I felt so bad when she teared up. I apologized for upsetting her.”
Judy said she was not upset, just overwhelmed.
“I don't believe in coincidences,” she said. “For me to be at that reunion and for Ola Jean to find me out of 400 people there? I was sitting with some other people - we were off in a corner by ourselves.”
Judy, a retired contracting officer with the Air Force living in Centerville, Ga., began e-mailing Vanderdonckt herself. She now is in contact with the family members of some of the other crew members. She said she let them know of the new items now on display in the museum.
“Even though I was only 3 (when Pete died) I felt like I had known my brother my whole life,” she said. “My mother never recovered. We never had any resolution to what happened to him. It was awful. It shortened my father's life.”
Pete Bolick, called H.P. or “Little Pete” by his family was the oldest child of Henry Pearson Bolick Sr. and Inez Gist Bolick. He grew up in a house built by his grandparents, Girard and Mary Bolick, whose families came here as Dutch immigrants. Both died before Henry Pearson Bolick Sr. entered World War I and they were among the first buried at Rosemont Cemetery. When Henry Pearson Bolick Sr. and Inez were married on Dec. 26, 1919, the house was for sale. They purchased it with an inheritance Inez had received.
Two siblings joined Pete - Robert Gist “Bob” Bolick and Judy. Henry Pearson Bolick Sr. went to work as a Union police officer after World War I. He remained on the force for 29 years until his health failed due to being exposed to gas in World War I.
Pete graduated from Union High in May of 1939 at the age of 17. Judy said he likely worked in Union Mill during his high school years as Bob did. (His father had gone to work in the mill at the age of 9 and had to stand on a box to reach machinery.
“As a youth he was a good student, a good Christian, a good friend and a very responsible, loving son,” she said. “Like most of the Union County youth he loved the fair, fireworks and Christmas, hunting and fishing, the picture show and his friends and family. He loved everyone and they loved him. He always wanted to be in the military as his father was, but he wanted to fly - see the world. Having lived with the loss and love of him all my life, I know these things to be true, but they are also reflected in the letters he wrote to my parents during his lengthy training stay at Fort Jackson as a National Guard volunteer (before the war started) and an infantry non-com.”
Over the next 19 months of training, Bolick came home for only one week - when his father's health worsened. His letters detail his training and his feelings as he misses his family and becomes a pilot.
Letters to and from home
In 1940, became a sergeant in the regular Army/infantry as a trainer of selectees. His commanding officer was Harry Arthur, then a colonel. Judy remembers that Arthur wrote to her family when Bolick got his wings and when he was reported missing. Bolick wrote to his family that a general told the non-coms they had to do in two weeks what they did in six in 1917. He wrote that his men referred to him as the “Little Tough Sarge from Co. E” and were friendly. In June of 1941, Bolick asked his mother to sign papers for him to take an aviation test. She did so with great trepidation.
Over the next months, Bolick wrote to his parents every day and wrote to Pat and friends.
In April of 1942, Bolick transferred to Santa Anna, Calif., to the United States Army Air Corps Air Force Replacement Center. He writes to his parents that the food, living accommodations and climate are wonderful. He jokingly warns his brother, Bo, who appears to be the playboy of the family that he might as well leave town when he comes back to Union in his new uniform. He writes that he has fallen for Pat “like a rock.” Later in June he is able to visit Los Angeles and buys Pat a watch for graduation.
Late in June Bolick reported to the Ryan School of Aeronautics in San Diego. Newcomers to this military fraternity are hazed and called Dodos. West Point cadets there said the requirements are more stringent than those they have encountered. Bolick wrote his family that he has completed two flights. In a letter, his mother asks him to promise to give up flying after the war. He tells her he can't - there are too many opportunities associated with flying. Later he writes that he wouldn't take a million dollars for his two years of military service. His letters tell him his friends from South Carolina are shipping out. He wants to see them but plans to do so in the “remains” of Berlin after the war.
In late July of 1942 Bolick was transferred to Tucson on training on small propeller planes. The airfield is not complete. Barracks have no windows, doors, latrines or lights. There are a lot of complaints from the guys who have been in the California paradise.
In August of 1942 Bolick wrote that he and a friend got a pass to go into Tucson and it reminded him of Union. Commenting on the 118th at Fort Jackson (with many Union men in it) leaving for service. Bolick tells his father that his job as a policeman will be quieter than ever on the weekends. He has passed his 50-hour flying test. He takes a ride with an ace instructor. They switch places. He loved it but blacked out three times. He gets a picture of Judy and can't believe how she has grown. His father writes that Humphries Willard has gone to Kelly Field, Texas, for his initial training. Bolick writes that this is great, he may be sent there for later training.
In Pecos, Texas, Bolick sees his new training plane and begins instrument flying. He writes that in a primary trainer, a mechanic had to crank the engine. The basic trainer is self-starting, is larger, has a larger engine and a two-way radio. He writes that he has been told he will be working “26 hours a day.”
That fall, Bolick's mother wrote that she wanted to come visit him. He explains that Pecos is no place for it. There is only one hotel that is always full of military officers and civilians, the environment off post is not safe and he could not stay with her. He tells her that when he goes to Advance training, it will be better, but she must bring someone with her. He describes Pecos as a small town, about like Kershaw, S.C., inhabited with Indians and Mexicans.
“The West is not as wild and wooly as it once was, but it is wild enough,” he writes.
In November, Bolick was sent to Williams Field, Chandler, Ariz., for Advanced Flying School. He is flying three different trainers with many more instruments. His mother writes that she is going to war movies. He pleads with her to go to something that will help her cope and feel better. He will be flying cross-country on Thanksgiving. He hopes he will be flying on Christmas as well since he can't be home. He writes that Bob has written him and seems to be getting the patriotic urge. He tells his mother to “break his neck” if he mentions the Army - he is going to do the fighting for the family; Bob needs to take care of the home front and the draft likely won't get him because of his polio leg. He has now soloed on the twin engine and is flying four hours a day. He is pretty sure he is on the way to graduation and when it comes, he will be closer to joining Co. E and the rest of the gang overseas.
In the letters, the Bolicks discuss friends who are casualties. He responds, “War is terrible and I'll be glad when the rat that caused it is so full of holes they can use him for a sifter.” He tells his mother he had a great Thanksgiving dinner and would like a Lady Baltimore cake for Christmas.
“That was his favorite of all - I made one a few years ago in memory of mother,” Judy said. “It took me all day, as it did her.”
In December, Bolick wrote that the weather is still warm in Arizona and he is swimming. He writes that he is fairly sure he will be a bomber pilot and he is disappointed because that would be too big and slow for him.
Later in December, Bolick's father went to the Veterans Hospital for treatment. Doctors told him his heart and lungs were so damaged from World War I gassing that there was nothing that could be done for him. Mr. Bolick asked his wife not to tell their son. Mrs. Bolick writes to her son that she has heard that he plans to get married before he goes overseas. She asks him to wait and talk about it. He writes that he has written to Pat's mother about the prospect of them marrying and she has no problem with it.
Bolick wrote that he planned to visit his primary instructor in Tucson during Christmas; they had exchanged Christmas cards. He then sees in a newspaper that the instructor and three others who had been in classes with him were killed.
Bolick graduated on Jan. 4, 1943. He was sent to Salt Lake City for a few days of tactical training. A few days later his mother wrote to him that his father was very ill and could no longer work. Bolick writes his father that he has his wings, did not get his choice, but thinks he will like the B-24. He tells his father not to worry about finances while Bob is in school - he will take care of matters. He tells his mother that he has written Pat that they cannot get married while his father is in this condition; he had rather do most anything than write that letter but it was the only thing he could do at the time.
A furlough was granted and Bolick came home to see his father. Later, when he returned to training James Vinson and Tom Mack from Union were stationed with him. He writes that he is flying day and night and going to school. One of his friends lost his girl. She married someone else. His mother asked the girl for his things. Bolick reminds his mother that if anything should happen while he is overseas, she should not do such a thing - if there was anything to be handled, he would do it. Then he reminds himself that Pat will always be his girl. The 2nd Air Force issues a new order that no man will fly more than six out of 24 hours. It will take Bolick longer to get in 60 hours.
Bolick turned 21 on Feb. 25, 1943. Two days later he writes his mother that he has changed his mind - he and Pat will marry if she will come to Arizona. He is not happy without her and wants to be with her before he goes overseas. He also will make more money in married status.
Pete and Pat Bolick were married on April 1, 1943, and settled into an apartment close to the base. Later that month, Bolick's father had a stroke but survived. Bolick writes that he has asked the commanding officer to allow his crew more flight time before transfer - they are very inexperienced.
Bolick, now a member of the 60th Bomb Squadron, 39th Bomb Group, (The Crusaders) was transferred to Alamogordo, N.M. He is told he will get his first crack at the Axis in July. He will be in New Mexico until July 1; then will move to Kansas. He will get a short furlough at that time before going over. He hopes it will be long enough to come home. Alamogordo is a “sad” town but the base is fine. When he can't go to town, Pat can come to the field.
Later, Pat writes for Pete. He is so busy she saw him for 15 minutes that day. They worked him so hard in Tucson, he lost 15 pounds. They are going to eat at the Officer's Mess because it is much cheaper and they are less likely to get poisoned - quite a few got food poisoning from the café where they were eating. Things are happening fast. Pete writes that he won't know until the last minute about anything and his mother should come if he doesn't get a furlough. He is not flying as much as he did in Tucson, mainly because they don't have enough planes, but they are making up with classroom time. Pat writes there is a new rule- if you aren't flying you may leave the base. The co-pilot's girl is coming to town and Pat is meeting her. (This could have been Maltrait's girl or the girlfriend of Lt. Smith. Maltrait was the first co-pilot, but became ill in Alamogordo and was replaced by Smith before the group went to Kansas.)
Bolick's mother and Pat's mother left for New Mexico by train. Pat wrote that they arrived safely. She also writes that they have received a letter from Mr. Bolick's sister, Della, in Laurens. All of her sons have been called up - two in the Navy. Included in Pat's letter is a letter to Bolick's dad from his mother. She writes that the weather is hot but breezy. The oddest thing she found in her travels was that after she crossed the Mississippi no one knew what grits were and ate potatoes for breakfast, even dining on the trail. The chef came out to speak to her and promised grits would be there the next time she was aboard. She inquires about Judy but said leaving Pete will be more than she can stand, but she knows he has to go. She has something special for Judy, a brightly painted chair.
The mothers stayed a week and after that Pete had a six-day furlough. He and Pat spent it in the mountains of Ruidoso, N.M., the only honeymoon they would ever have.
In July of 1943 Bolick wrote that Pat was on her way home and he was on his way to Topeka, the staging area for deployment. He tells his father he never realized seeing Pat go would hurt that badly.
In an August letter, Bolick said he had been all over the country. He sent a card from Gulfport, Miss., the only place he had a chance to land. He and his crew stayed overnight there then flew to Florida and over the Gulf of Mexico before returning to Kansas. He writes that he hopes for a chance to fly over home.
“Dad, when you see a four-engine airplane don't strain yourself believing it might be me because I personally guarantee if I ever get home you will know it and so will the whole town. I have already been able to take my bombardier, navigator and assistant engineer home and they really got a thrill especially flying so low.”
Bolick wrote that the men were waiting on new airplanes, which turned out to be the B-24H. It featured a movable turret that retracted and additional training was needed. Pat comes to visit. Bolick knows where he is going but can't tell anyone. He thinks he will get his plane in a few days and will make a 2,200-mile flight before going overseas. If so, he will fly over home.
“You won't have to worry about seeing me because I'll make enough racket to wake up Rosemont Cemetery,” he writes.
Somehow, the word was spread. On Aug. 11, 1943, the streets in Union were packed with people holding umbrellas in the pouring rain waiting on Bolick's crew to fly over. In a plane named “Gregory the Great,' he dropped his mother and Pat packages with a letter and a silk pillow case inside. All of the crew did the same thing for their families as they flew over their homes.
On Aug. 24, 1943, Bolick and his crew arrived in Wendling Field, Norfolk, England.
“Lindbergh has nothing on me,” he wrote. There is more schooling and he writes that he is enjoying listening to the English talk and is sure they feel the same about the Americans. The English have a good sense of humor and the RAF men are nice guys and good neighbors.
In September Bolick writes his father about England. Mr. Bolick had been in London during World War I. Bolick tells his father he would not recognize it after the German blitz. Everyone rides a bicycle. (When Bolick did not return to the base from the MIA mission, a friend gave his bike to an orphanage.) He said he has no news; his father probably knows more than he does.
“I now know that he flew a mission on Sept. 6 for which they received a commendation from the general through his commander,” Mrs. Sparks said. “It was their first mission but it was diversionary. They led the Germans away from the real target. They were attacked but it did not count in their 25 necessary to come home because they carried no bombs.”
Bolick said he does not know how the German people stand it; he knows they cannot sleep for fear of bombs because planes are gong and coming 24 hours a day. His father would like to know about places in England and Frances but Bolick explains that he only sees things from the air. Read the newspapers about the B-24s in England on a mission, and he will know it's him, Bolick said.
In October Bolick writes that there is nothing he wants to say - watching his friends fall out of the sky next to him is not something to talk about.
“All I can say is this is going to be a long hard war and I am it,” he said. He jokingly reports that his cold is finally cured “and now all I have to watch out for is lead, but it shouldn't be as hard to dodge as a bad cold.” He has found his friends from Company E. They have been in England for a year and are yearning for home. He was able to go hunting.
Later he writes that things are quiet, but that doesn't help him accomplish the 25 missions that he must complete before he can go home. “War is rough but all in all this would be a pretty place if it were inhabited by Americans.” He is no longer impressed with the English. At this point in the war, there was some animosity because the Americans had more than the English service men. He sees Paul James Jr.'s name on the map of the United States in a Red Cross club and asks his father to look him up. He receives a cable from his mother, which frightens him, but it was about her not receiving any mail and she was scared. He explains mail is irregular and not to worry, if something happened to him she would know in three days. No news is good news.
Bolick was promoted to first lieutenant (gold bars) on Nov. 6, 1943. He writes that he is very down but doesn't explain why. He just wants to sit by the fire.
“Don't think a fellow could stand many days like yesterday,” he said. Judy obtained a report that said the mission on Nov. 5 was to Munster, Germany. Nearby was an industrial complex heavily fortified with anti-aircraft and enemy fighters. The group had to release bombs using PFF due to poor visual target weather - fair bombing was achieved. Fighters claimed one B-24 and two were claimed by flak defenses. There were 32 causalities, 30 MIA and two injured.
On Nov. 15, Pete sent his family an Army Christmas card with the signatures of all crew members saying “we are pulling for each other.”
On Nov. 21, 1943, Pete wrote his last letter to his family. He talks about the odds of winning the game and coming home. If they flew diversions, they got no credit for them even if they were attacked or the plane fell apart.
“You have to be really lucky to win 25 to 0,” Mrs. Sparks said.
Missing in action
Bolick's wife received a letter dated Nov. 25. Mrs. Sparks Christmas card to her brother was returned MIA.
On Dec. 10, 1943, Bolick's family received notification from the War Department that he is MIA. Pete and his sweetheart had been married only eight months. He went missing three days before his baby sister's birthday.
On Feb. 20, 1944, Bolick's Air Medal was presented to Pat posthumously at his parents' home by Col. Stout, commanding officer of Greenville Base.
A year later, he was declared dead and a memorial service was held for him at the family's church, Green Street Methodist. His memorial marker was placed at Forest Lawn Cemetery with the Bolick family marker.
“The marker was designed by a friend, Sonny Gossett,” Mrs. Sparks said. “It is perfect for Pete. However, the overseer of the cemetery would not allow more than one marker to a family plot. My father fought hard but was forced to bury it.”
The day after her mother's death in 1999, Mrs. Sparks visited the gravesite and noticed many other family plots with multiple markers.
“My brother and I had the marker raised and it is now proudly placed beside my parents,” she said.
The loss of Pete devastated the family. His brother, Bob, despite his disability, volunteered and marched across Europe.
“There was no stopping him after Pete was killed,” Mrs. Sparks said.
Bolick's father, grief stricken and very ill, died four years later. His mother lived another 55 years, but never recovered. She would tell Mrs. Sparks that all that was keeping her sane was the need to raise her - the baby, the sister Bolick had loved so much.
The family has learned that Bolick went MIA on Mission 11 to Bremen, Germany. There were 25 B-24s involved. Two aborted and one lost, cause unknown.
“Bombing good - poor visual and extremely cold,” the report reads. “Lead bombardier reported that there were many difficulties in the group due to the high operating altitude and temperatures recorded as low as minus 47 degrees causing mechanical failures (frozen turrets and bomb bay doors.) Flak was moderate to strong intensity and accurate, requiring violent evasive action. Flight distance - 7.5 hours. Planes returned with six having Category 1 damage. First Lt. H.P. Bolick Jr. was missing. Cause unknown.”
Judy said her brother's plane was deputy lead. It was reported by the other crews that he was having engine trouble and was pulling up and falling back. He did not return to formation. He made it to the target, but was lagging behind. Cloud cover was heavy and no one saw what happened. Stragglers were often prime targets. “It appears that he went down near the North Sea and the mouth of the Elbe River,” she said. “The families of the crew had friends and relatives searching when the war ended. There were 11 crew members. A German report said that eight were found Dec. 1, 1943. One washed up on Jan. 14, 1944. Of the nine, two were unidentifiable and two others were missing. Several people searched for and found the graves in Germany as reported in German files. The bodies were moved to American cemeteries or in some cases, brought home. H.P.'s name is on the MIA monument in the Netherlands Cemetery. The co-pilot, Heber Smith, is buried in Salt Lake City, Utah, and J.C. Maupin, the navigator, is buried in Cleveland, Tenn. Also, because they were deputy lead of the group, they had an additional bombardier on board. He, too, was brought home.”
Judy Sparks said her mother and brother were visited in 1969 by one of Pete's friends who was on the raid. (An Air Force wife, she was in Hawaii at the time). The man explained that he was driving down the interstate, saw the sign for Union and could not pass by.
“He said they thought he (Pete's plane) probably got a direct hit, but no one saw it,” she said. “He had given Pete's bicycle to a nearby orphanage. I asked my Mother some questions she might have asked. She told me she was so overwhelmed that she could not speak a word.”
On April 12, 2012, Judy visited the Netherlands American Cemetery where Pete's name is engraved on the Tablet of the Missing.
Judy said she is grateful to Vanderdonckt for adopting the graves of four of Pete's crew. A Facebook page he started is now full of information and pictures of the crew.
“His quest for information is what lead him to search for me,” she said. “The odds against his finding me were probably astronomical. I do now believe it was coincidence that I was at the Union High '50s reunion at the moment when Ola Jean Kelly saw my name plate and remembered his inquiry. I would like to think it was divine providence; that it was time for me to remember and learn and preserve Pete's memory. I have loved him all of my life and I will be forever grateful for this journey. Thanks to Philippe, I am now talking to and sharing information with other family members. Perhaps we will find Gregory, the plane's namesake.”
Judy said she has found J.C. Maupin's brother, Kermit. He visited the graves of the crew members in 1945.
“He says J.C. wrote to him that the guys had a pact to live or die together,” she said. “Per information in the 8th Air Force Museum in Pooler, Ga., bailing out was most often not successful due to flak and fighter bullets and Germans to kill you on the ground or make you a prisoner whose likelihood of survival was low. Joyce, J.C.'s sister, says that his letters were preparing them for the worst - that they should be prepared and he was OK to go. There was no sign of 'Gregory the Great.' Mother finally believed that Pete was in the North Sea, but there is no way to know what happened to them or the plane because the Germans left no trace of a downed plane. Speculation is all we really have about that and that serves no purpose - I lived through all of that once - it just breaks your heart. I just want to keep my wonderful brother's memory alive and hope someday to see my family all together in the light of God.”
(Posted June 12, 2017)