Modern wars take place on such a large scale that one person’s experiences can seem lost in the numbers: 750,000 Union and Confederate dead in the Civil War; 85 million in uniform worldwide during World War II.
Each returning veteran, however, comes home with his or her own memories—individual, often unique stories that may be told often or almost never, sometimes understandable only to others who fought.
The Standing Together initiative is a National Endowment for the Humanities program designed to help support our veterans and promote an understanding of the war experience.
Remembering Wyoming Hero Leo Boelens
Wyoming-native Leo Boelens was many things: an engineer, a writer, a prolific leader, and an American war hero, to name a few of his most salient legacies.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of Boelens’ tragic death. As an Engineering Officer in the United States Army Air Corps, Boelens is remembered for his tenacity, his fearless sense of duty, and his ceaseless aura of confidence during World War II’s most trying moments.
In September 1941, Boelens said goodbye to his family and stepped into a car in Billings, Montana that carried him to San Francisco and lead him to the Province of Bataan, where he earned a reputation as an aeronautical engineer with almost mythical mechanical skills. In addition to maintaining an arsenal of WWII planes, Boelens used his ingenuity to construct supplementary hybrid aircraft from foraged parts of downed military craft. It was in one of these planes, an amphibious aircraft deemed “The Duck,” that Boelens would fly many men to safety before the American surrender.
In May of 1942 the brilliant engineer was captured by the Japanese and sent to a prison camp, the Davao Penal Colony, on the island of Mindanao where he survived horrific conditions. Numerous American soldiers died on the march to the camp, now known as the Batan Death march. Even more would die in the camp due to disease, malnutrition, and blatant abuse from Japanese guards. Boelens and nine other Americans, including Lt. Col. William Dyess, as well as two Filipino POWs began storing supplies and planning for their impending escape.
Boelens, calling on his ingenuity, built a makeshift sextant which allowed the escapees to navigate their route using only the position of the stars. This instrument ultimately helped save all the men from being apprehended by the Japanese military during their 1600-mile journey to safety. The journey, although heroic, was extremely difficult. The men endured exposure, starvation, and a persistent fear of apprehension. Against all odds, however, all 10 men made it to their destination. While most of the men returned safely to the United States, Boelens gave up his life in the Philippines as he continued to work towards ending the war. While attempting to construct a secret landing strip in the Mindanao wilderness, Boelens became the only member of the escape to be recaptured. Angered at the escape, the Japanese soldiers brutally killed Boelens rather than take him as a POW again.
A graduate of Greybull High School and a former UW Student, Boelens embodied the spirit of Wyoming. Many credited Boelens’ upbringing in the Big Horn Basin for his mechanical dexterity, patriotism, work ethic, and commitment to duty. Boelens was the youngest of eleven farm children. Throughout WWII, he never forgot his roots. During combat correspondence, Boelens routinely referred to himself as “a farmer, L.A.B” during radio transmissions.
Boelens generous spirit lives on today, in the words of the diary, letters, and poems that he wrote throughout his service. To his friend and servicemen Sam Grashio, who was saved from capture due largely to Bolen’s own intuition, he wrote:
“We have reached another junction; the sign says you must go, until our paths converge at a happy stand where the pickens are good.”
One might suspect that Boelens’ spirit resides at this “happy stand” today.
You can find a small white cross marking Boelens’ remains at the Manila American Cemetery plot F, row 2, grave 97.
The Wyoming Humanities Council presents 4-4-43, a documentary from author and filmmaker John Lukacs. The film is based on Lukacs’ book Escape from Davao: The Forgotten Story of the Most Daring Prison Break of the Pacific War, which examines the World War II story of American soldiers and civilian prisoners of war who broke out of the Davao Penal Colony, an allegedly escape-proof Imperial Japanese Army prison plantation in the Philippines. The escape revealed to the world the truth about atrocities committed by the Japanese on the Bataan Death March and against prisoners in the camps. One member of the escape team was Lieutenant Leo Boelens from Basin Wyoming. Johnny Winterholler of Lovell, Wyoming also assisted with but did not escape.
Screenings are scheduled:
- Laramie at the Gryphon Theatre on Thursday, October 9
- Gillette at the Campbell County Library on Friday, October 10
- Sheridan in the Whitney Presentation Hall at Sheridan College on Saturday, October 11
- Basin at the Basin City Arts Center on Monday, October 13
- Jackson at the Pink Garter Theater on Tuesday, October 14
- Rock Springs at the Broadway Theater on Wednesday, October 15
- Casper at the Wold Physical Science building room 103 at Casper College on Thursday October 16
- Cheyenne in room 120/121 of the Training Center at Laramie County Community College on Friday, October 17.
All screenings are free and open to the public and begin at 7 p.m. Lukacs will be on hand following each screening to lead discussions with audience members.
Narrated by decorated Vietnam veteran/Hollywood actor Dale Dye, the film is an epic, educational and entertaining true adventure tale of the only large-scale escape of U.S. prisoners-of-war in the Pacific Theater during World War II and their fight to tell the story of the infamous Bataan Death March and other Japanese atrocities to the world, as well as the remarkable unknown hero – Lt. Col. Dyess, a flying legend of the Pacific War – that was largely responsible for it all. The story of the Davao escape is undoubtedly the most important POW/MIA story in our nation’s history. One of the 12 escapees was a Wyoming native and former UW student Leo Boelens of Basin. Boelens, tragically, was the only member of the legendary “Davao Dozen” that did not return home after the war; Boelens was recaptured, tortured and executed by the Japanese in the Philippines. The soft-spoken, gifted Army Air Corps mechanic was 29.
4-4-43 was an official selection of the prestigious 2014 GI Film Festival held over Memorial Day weekend in Washington, DC, and will be airing nationally on hundreds of PBS stations around the country later this year, globally on Armed Forces Network and the Pentagon Channel, as well as in screening events at museums, military bases, film festivals and schools. The film is currently available on DVD and will soon be available on iTunes, Hulu.com, Amazon Instant Video and Netflix.
The film tour is part of the Wyoming Humanities Council’s veterans programming initiative and partially supported with funds from the Wyoming State Legislature and special grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities through the Standing Together: The Humanities and the Experience of War initiative, designed to support humanities programs that focus on the history, experience, or meaning of war and military service.