Remembering a hero

Marlys Good

This community is proud of its veterans who have served the United States of America, protecting the nation without fanfare or accolades, then returning, as hard as it may be, to “a normal life.”
We have told their stories — from World War II, the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam War, the war in Afghanistan and other conflicts that have arisen.
We have recounted stories of high school teenagers, young men, who joined the military before they graduated, because they wanted to serve.
Extraordinary stories, each and every one.
But we ran across a story of a hero, a Greybull High School graduate who went unnoticed, unheralded, until we happened to find an article in the Feb. 10, 1944, issue with the headline: “Leo Boelens makes escape from Jap Prison Camp,” and the subhead, “Greybull High School graduate is one of 10 men to elude Nips in miraculous venture.”
Capt. Boelens is remembered with affection and deep pride by numerous nieces and nephews, great-nieces and nephews who still live in and around the community.
Del Boelens Black, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Vic Boelens, can remember her uncle and said, “We were and are very proud of that guy.” She was too young to have much memory of his miraculous escape, but she knew, as young children can sense, that he and his comrades had accomplished something miraculous.
The following information was taken from the Feb. 10, 1944 edition of the Greybull Standard:
“Leo graduated from Greybull High School with the Class of 1933, He attended the University of Wyoming, where he received military training as a member of the ROTC. He left UW at the end of his third year and accepted a job at Bonneville power administration during the time of the construction of the dam. Being apt at mathematics, abetted by his three years at the  university where he studied engineering, at Bonneville he was assigned as engineering draftsman.”
According to the 1944 story, although Leo liked his work, the thought uppermost in his mind was aviation. The ambition to fly a plane could not be resisted and so on January 4, 1940, he enlisted in the army air corps. He began his training by taking a three-month course in  aeronautical  engineering at Purdue University.
Leo was transferred to Chunate Field, Ill., where he continued his training.  His progress was rapid and he was soon sent to Randolph Field, where he completed his training. In midsummer of 1941, he was sent to the Philippines, where he was stationed at Nichols Field at the time of Pearl Harbor.
Because of where they were stationed, Leo and many of his flying buddies were among the first to engage in combat with the Japanese. They were greatly outnumbered, in men and equipment; the story of the heroic battle fought by the valiant U.S. soldiers at Bataan and Corregidor will be written in future histories as one of the greatest, as well as one of the most discouraging, of all time for American soldiers.
Early in May 1942, the gallant men at Corregidor were forced to surrender. Thousands were taken prisoner.
For 11 long months, Leo, with the other American boys, endured veritable hell as prisoners in the hands of the Japanese. How the prisoners survived the vilest kind of treatment and starvation is vividly told by Commander  Melvyn McCoy and Lt. Col. Stephen M. Mellnik in a story that appeared in Life magazine after the amazing escape.
For weeks, 10 of the prisoners, of which Leo was one, planned their successful escape.  During this time, they stored food and supplies and some quinine. To chart their course over 1,600 miles of unknown water, an instrument known as a sextant was needed. This is an instrument in navigation by which direction is calculated by the position of the stars.
Leo figured again prominently. He boasted that he could make one and made good on his promise. His engineering training at the University of Wyoming, his work at Bonneville dam as a computer analyst and his aeronautical training during his early army aviation days put him in good standing when he set about to devise the delicate sextant. (It worked perfectly and kept them on the right track.)
The 10 men started their escape April 4, 1943. During the hazardous 1,600-mile journey, they narrowly averted apprehension by the Japs on numerous occasions, but they finally arrived at their destination safely.
Thus, briefly, the narrative is told of how a Greybull High School graduate figured in one of the biggest news stories to come out of this war.
Meanwhile, in Basin
Boelens’ parents, Mr. and Mrs. Axel Boelens of Basin, knew that their son had been taken prisoner by the Japanese on May 6, 1942. However, they knew nothing about his exact whereabouts or how he was being treated. Had he been injured?  Unanswered questions and no answers were forthcoming.
According to the 1944 story in the Standard, it was only after the “Life” magazine carried a “rather complete” story of the miraculous escape that they learned of the horrifying experiences he had withstood.         
Leo’s great niece, Carolyn Boelens Walton, is one of several family members who has a respect and love of family history. She shared, “Leo never returned to the States after his escape. There is a book by Jack Hawkins, ‘Never Say Die,’ and another written by Edwin Dyess, ‘4-4-43,’ who were fellow escapees.
Carolyn said, “Leo chose to stay and work on an airfield located in Mindanao. He told his buddies, “I want to finish this field. Maybe I can come out later.” That decision cost him his life. A Japanese landing party made it into the area and Leo was killed by a Japanese sniper.
Carolyn said, “Leo is at the military cemetery in the Philippi cemetery in the Philippines.  The kiosk at the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. enables one to locate just exactly where he remains with so many brave young Americans.”
Bette Rae Peterson Jones, daughter of Clyde and Jeanie Boelens Peterson of Emblem, wasn’t born until the late 1950s, more than a decade after Capt. Boelens’ death. But Bette Rae said, “My mother spoke of ‘Uncle Leo’ in what I thought was a hushed, kind of reverent awe. Leo was born in June 1914. Mom was born in July 1929. When Leo left for college, probably around 1935, and joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in August 1940, my mom would have been 11 years old. I can only imagine what their relationship might have been.”
Eighty years after Leo Boelens story in the Greybull Standard revealed his miraculous escape, his bravery and his devotion to his country, he is still loved, admired, respected and remembered by great- and great-great nieces and nephews.
It has been handed down from generation to generation.
It is an example of how patriotism and love of country is kept alive for generation after generation.