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Gambell National Guard scout honored for 1955 crash rescue

Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe pins the Alaska Heroism Medal on Cpl. Bruce Boolowon in Gambell. Photo courtesy Robert DeBerry/Alaska National Guard (2023)
Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe pins the Alaska Heroism Medal on Cpl. Bruce Boolowon in Gambell. Photo courtesy Robert DeBerry/Alaska National Guard (2023)

A Gambell man has been recognized by the top military officer in Alaska for his lifesaving effort in 1955.

In June 1955, Soviet fighter planes shot down a U.S. Navy P2V-5 Neptune flying on routine patrols over the Bering Sea. It crashed in flames on St. Lawrence Island, according to the Alaska National Guard.

Corporal Bruce Boolowon was part of a group of 16 Alaska National Guardsmen from the 1st Scout Battalion who mounted a rescue mission to save 11 U.S. Navy airmen who were on board the plane.

Part of the Lockheed P2V-5 Neptune wreckage remains in Gambell. Photo courtesy of Gay Sheffield, UAF Northwest Campus and Alaska SeaGrant.
Part of the Lockheed P2V-5 Neptune wreckage remains in Gambell. Photo courtesy of Gay Sheffield, UAF Northwest Campus and Alaska SeaGrant.

Boolowon is believed to be the last surviving member of the St. Lawrence Island rescue team. He attended a ceremony at the John Apangalook Memorial High School in Gambell on March 28. He was awarded the Alaska Heroism Medal from the Alaska National Guard and Alaska Office of Veterans Affairs.

Russians landed often in Gambell during the Cold War, but the visits were not usually nefarious, according to the Associated Press. Since St. Lawrence Island is so close to Russia, people routinely traveled back and forth to visit relatives.

Boolowon recounted when his unit first caught sight of the damaged U.S. Navy airplane.

“They came in and one engine was smoking, and then we knew, with the high-pitched motor, we knew there was something wrong with them,” Boolowon said.

Boolowon was happy to receive the medal for his squad’s action that day in 1955.

“I think it’s a good thing, really, to be awarded several years later,” Boolowon added.

JoAnn Kulukhon is a relative of men in the 1st Scout Battalion. She radiated praise for Boolowon at the ceremony.

“I’m so proud of him and happy,” Kulukhon said.

Alaska Adjutant General and Commissioner of the Department of Military and Veteran’s Affairs Major General Torrence Saxe presented Boolowon with the medal.

The Alaska Heroism Medal is the state’s highest award for valor during peacetime.

The 16 members of the 1st Scout Battalion were:

  • Master Sgt. Willis Walunga
  • Staff Sgt. Clifford Iknokinok
  • Sgt. Herbert Apassingok
  • Sgt. Ralph Apatiki Sr.
  • Cpl. Bruce Boolowon
  • Cpl. Victor Campbell
  • Cpl. Ned Koozaata
  • Cpl. Joseph Slwooko
  • Pfc. Holden Apatiki
  • Pfc. Lane Iyakitan
  • Pfc. Leroy Kulukhon
  • Pfc. Woodrow Malewotkuk
  • Pfc. Roger Slwooko
  • Pfc. Vernon Slwooko
  • Pfc. Donald Ungott
  • Pvt. Luke Kulukhon

Image at top: Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe pins the Alaska Heroism Medal on Cpl. Bruce Boolowon in Gambell. Photo courtesy Robert DeBerry, Alaska National Guard (2023).

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