A group of guardsmen and an Air Force member were recently honored for their heroic actions in rescuing the crew of a US Navy P2V-5 Neptune maritime patrol aircraft, which was attacked by two Soviet MiG-15 fighters in 1955 while flying over the Bering Strait. The attack was labeled a possible “mistake” by embarrassed Soviet leaders and came at a problematic time for the Soviet Union, as a summit to de-escalate Cold War tensions was planned the following month in Geneva with President Dwight Eisenhower, Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin, and the prime ministers of Great Britain and France.
The plane’s right engine was destroyed, and the pilot had to make a controlled crash landing on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. The 11 crewmen had injuries caused by bullets, shrapnel, or the fireball that erupted when the Neptune landed wheels up on the tundra of the island, and several had severe burns. The crewmen took refuge in a ditch on the island and waited, not knowing if they were about to be captured or rescued.
Fortunately, they were found by members of the First Scouts unit of the Alaska National Guard, who helped them get medical attention and alerted military authorities that the men were safe. The 16 guardsmen and an unknown Air Force member who helped rescue the crew were recently honored with Alaska Heroism Medals. Bruce Boolowon, then a corporal, is the sole survivor, and family members of the other 15 received the medals on their behalf.
Shortly after the rescue, two of the guardsmen received honorific letters and certificates from the Navy and National Guard. They were taken to Washington, D.C., and presented “Wings of Gold” with the Honorary Naval Aviator Program designation. The other 14 only received letters, and there were no other medals available to the men for their deeds because the rescue was considered a peacetime affair.
The families of the guardsmen felt that the members should have received a better award than a letter of appreciation. The director of the state Office of Veterans Affairs decided to give the guardsmen Alaska Heroism Medals, which honors Alaska National Guard members who distinguish themselves by heroism, meritorious achievement, or going beyond the call of duty.
Boolowon was with others in the first boat to arrive at the crash site, where they found the men. He said they weren’t scared it was a Soviet aircraft because they were familiar with the US plane from its frequent maritime patrols out of Naval Air Station Kodiak.
The wreckage of the plane still sits 8 miles (12.9 kilometers) from the village. Boolowon and two other men from the first boat went to Gambell to get medical supplies, stretchers, and more help. Another boat arrived, and the guardsmen eventually took the men to the village for treatment by a local nurse at a clinic and a church until a transport plane arrived about 12 hours later to take them to Anchorage. Seven of the injured were later flown to California to recuperate.
The bravery and selflessness of the guardsmen and Air Force member in rescuing the crew of the US Navy P2V-5 Neptune will never be forgotten. The Alaska Heroism Medals they received are a small token of appreciation for their incredible act of courage during the height of the Cold War.