Gambell resident, families receive Alaska Heroism Medals for 1955 rescue

Outside The Gates
Outside the Gates
Published: Apr. 6, 2023 at 5:19 PM AKDT
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GAMBELL, Alaska (KTUU) - It’s been nearly seven decades since a U.S. Navy P2V-5 Neptune plane was shot down by two Russian MiG-15s over the Bering Sea in the midst of the Cold War.

The aircraft was on a routine patrol out of Kodiak carrying 11 airmen when the pilots were forced to make a crash landing on St. Lawrence Island.

Alaska National Guard veteran Bruce Boolowon remembers that day in June 1955 clearly.

“All of a sudden we heard a plane — the sound of the plane coming in,” Boolowon recalled. “I knew there was something wrong because it’s got a high-pitched motor sound.”

Boolowon was serving alongside 15 other members that made up the First Scout Battalion out of Gambell who witnessed the smoke from the plane’s impact billow up toward the sky. The group steered their skin boats toward the crash site in response, where they came upon the badly injured Navy sailors and transported them to the safety of their village.

Had it not been for their actions that day, the men aboard the aircraft likely would have died or faced Russian capture.

It was a feat Verdie Bowen, the director of the Alaska Office of Veterans Affairs, thought worthy of more than the Letter of Appreciation they initially received.

“Many things happened in the Cold War that is not public information, and as they declassify those records, then these records are being more scrutinized, and more and more people are being awarded medals,” Bowen said. “So it’s important for us to continue to review these old records as they declassify them so that those people receive those awards that they’ve earned.”

After Bowen researched the history of the events that took place that day, he nominated the 16 First Scouts for the Alaska Heroism Medal, the State of Alaska’s highest award for valor during peacetime.

Gen. Maj. Torrence Saxe, the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard, approved the awards.

On March 28, a crew assigned to the 211th Rescue Squadron, 176th Wing, flew an Alaska Air National Guard HC-130J Combat King II to the remote community that sits about 50 miles off the coast of Russia. Passengers included Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson personnel as well as civilians with the Alaska National Guard and DMVA, all of whom took part in a medaling ceremony at John Apangalook Memorial High School.

Despite blizzard conditions upon arrival, the community of Gambell greeted the delegation at the end of the 4,500-foot runway, bringing with them their own convoy of 4-wheelers and pickup trucks to transport the visitors and equipment to the school.

Within minutes, the gymnasium filled with generations of residents. Elders and adults lined the eight rows of bleachers against the back wall, while a handful of smaller children patiently sat cross-legged on the floor to one side.

Sixteen boxes, each holding a medal of a soldier carrying another on his shoulders, sat open in front of a temporary lectern.

Around two dozen fold-out chairs sat — perfectly centered to the school’s mascot branded to the ground — the Qughsatkut; Siberian Yup’ik for King Polar Bear.

Front and center sat Boolowon, the last surviving member of the rescue team, surrounded by the families of the other 15 men that made up his battalion.

The echoed sounds of voices bantering were soon met with opposing silence as the ceremony began. Four Alaska Youth Military Academy cadets marched out to post colors, followed by a prayer articulated in Siberian Yup’ik as the crowd bowed their heads.

Saxe retold the story to remind the audience of why they had all gathered; the plane crash, the 11 injured Navymen, and the actions of the First Scouts.

“Nobody in the chain of command — no higher-up, no General — told them to go out and save those sailors,” Saxe said. “They saw it happen, they took charge, and they moved out.”

After his address, a print depicting the two Soviet MiG-15s surrounding the Navy Neptune by artist John Hume was presented to the village before Saxe and Bowen presented the medals.

One by one, each name was read as ancestors of the departed scouts accepted the awards on their behalf.

As the only surviving member of the First Scout Batallion of Gambell that saved the lives of 11 sailors in 1955, Boolowon was the only one to have the medal pinned to his lapel.