67 Years Later, Alaskans Get Their Heroism Medals

National Guardsmen rescued injured members of a downed Navy plane
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 2, 2023 5:30 AM CDT
67 Years Later, Alaskans Get Their Heroism Medals
This March 28, 2023, photo shows Bruce Boolowon, left, posing with his eldest daughter, Rhona Pani Apassingok, at an Alaska National Guard ceremony in Gambell, Alaska.   (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

Bruce Boolowon, then a lean 20-year-old, and a group of friends were hunting for murre eggs in a walrus skin boat on a remote Alaska island in the Bering Strait when they saw a crippled airplane flying low. “Something was wrong,” Boolowon, now 87, recalled of that day in 1955. “They came in and one engine was smoking.” A US Navy P2V-5 Neptune maritime patrol aircraft had been attacked at about 8,000 feet by two Soviet MiG-15 fighters roaring out of nearby Siberia, per the AP. The plane's right engine was destroyed and the pilot was making a controlled crash landing.

Its 11 crewmen had injuries in varying degrees of severity, caused either by the bullets sprayed by the two jet fighters, shrapnel, or the fireball that erupted when the Neptune landed wheels up on the tundra of St. Lawrence Island and fuel tanks stored in the plane’s belly exploded. “It burned everybody,” the navigator on the flight, David Assard, told the Anchorage Daily News in 2015. Several of the men had severe burns. The men took refuge in a ditch on St. Lawrence Island—just 40 miles from Siberia and 715 miles west of Anchorage—to avoid the exploding ammunition and waited, but for what they weren’t sure. When the armed Siberian Yupik Eskimo egg hunters showed up, the Navy men didn’t know if they were about to be captured or rescued.

“Well, they were glad to see us and that we were Americans,” Boolowon told the AP. They were not only friendly faces but members of the First Scouts unit of the Alaska National Guard who lived on the island and whose job it was to monitor the Soviet Union. The 16 guardsmen and an unknown Air Force member helped the crew get medical attention. On Tuesday, the guardsmen were honored with Alaska Heroism Medals, giving the Alaska Native men the recognition that wasn’t available 67 years ago. Boolowon, then a corporal, is the sole survivor, and family members of the other 15 received the medals on their behalf. (Read the full AP story with more details on the attack, later labeled a mistake by the USSR.)

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