“A boy doesn’t need a yardstick if there’s a man about the size he wants to be.”
I heard that somewhere when I was in school. It made me think of my dad and my uncles. My uncle Joe Lewis, for example. He lived a long and exemplary life, a life that was ideal to hold as an example, a high standard for aiming to measure up. A perfect yardstick. He was the model of a hard-working, smart, funny, loving man. His passing was marked by a gathering of his large and happy family including his children, grandchildren, and great-grands. A good number of his nieces and nephews were there too, telling stories.
Uncle Joe knew of my interest in genealogy and family stories. He had a book of family tree information, and shared it with me about 20 years ago. His mother’s maiden name was Boehling. I added some Lewis and Boehling twigs to my tree, and filled in some of his blank spots on the McDonald side.
Forward to last year. A friend from my high school days sent me a book. She thought I would like it just because it was about flying and I had been a pilot. The book was A Heavy Bomber at War: Memories of World War II by James W. Boehling. “Hm, Boehling. I know that name.” The book was a memoir, a first-person account of wartime experience as a B-17 Navigator in the Army Air Corps. It didn’t take much to start noticing other familiar names in the story that made me realize there was indeed a family connection. Jimmy Boehling had graduated from my old high school, the same as Uncle Joe, my other uncles, my dad, my brothers and some cousins. I asked Uncle Joe about him, and he knew they were “some kind of cousins” but Jimmy was two years older and they didn’t spend a lot of time together. Joe hadn’t heard of the book. I sent it to him.
James William Boehling was born in 1925 and grew up on Hanover Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, across from that same high school. His mom and dad bought the house when he was 10 months old and Richmond’s West End was a burgeoning new development. It’s now the Museum District, busy with tourists, but back then before the museums there were vast empty spaces, ideal for bike riding, baseball and all the games kids play. He was the firstborn of a large family, and everybody knew the Boehling kids of Hanover Avenue. After graduating in the Class of 1942, doing a freshman year at Virginia Tech and working for a time at his dad’s feed company, he turned 18 and signed up for the Air Cadet program. Passing through the battery of tests and exercises for pilot qualification, he was relieved to get through the 1-in-3 washout rate and get selected for a pilot slot. Then the “needs of the service” dictated a change. Everyone in his class who met the requirements for becoming a navigator was sent out on that track.
We follow the cadet through his intensive training in the science and art of navigation using all the tools and techniques of the time. Then overseas, training and more training, learning the ins and outs of the B-17 bomber. On his first combat mission, Boehling’s aircraft was part of a large formation that took off from England, assembled with others over Rheims, France, and then headed for their assigned target deep in Germany. All according to plan.
The book describes the scene in detail. We feel the anxiety in the cramped forward compartment, see the deadly weather front forcing the pilot to maneuver through a hole in the clouds. Losing sight of others in the formation, drifting downward and banking into the blinding white mist. The plane lurches upward, then down and falls into a stall, a deadly diving spin. The nav signals across the compartment to his crewmates, Something’s wrong, we’ve got to get out. No response, immobilized, expressionless. He makes his way to the hatch and jumps. He lands within sight of the burning wreckage. Sole survivor.
The crash put him in Allied-occupied Germany. A group of German youths gave him a bicycle ride, encountering a squad of French soldiers who took him for a while until they met up with some Americans who had room in their Jeep. He eventually strolled into his old base in England, with a reception along the lines of, “Hmm, thought you were dead.”
The war in Europe was over not long after that. We ride along at the Navigator’s station following all the nav calculations on the way back to the States, and then getting set for cross-training to the B-29 to finish the war in the Pacific. That assignment was called off with the announcement of V-J Day, and Jimmy returned home to Richmond.
The home on Hanover Avenue was where Jimmy had lived since he was 10 months old. He returned there after the war. When my friend sent me the book she told me he had lived there all his life. Richmond TV station WTVR had done an article in 2018 marveling that he was a local legend, having lived in the same house for 92 years. All the neighbors knew him of course. Well liked, well respected. I sure would have liked to have met that man. What a story, what a life.
At Uncle Joe’s funeral last week, as the large crowd filtered out after the ceremonies, I talked with someone who said she was a member of the Boehling family. “Hm, Boehling. I know that name.” With a little hesitation, I asked in a low voice, “Is Jimmy Boehling still living?” She answered yes, he is. “Didn’t you see him? He was here! He just drove away a few minutes ago.” And yes, he still lives on his own, going on 97 years in the house on Hanover Avenue.