Lest We Forget
A U.S. Air Force veteran solves two WWII mysteries, garnering France’s highest honor.
Courtesy Don Bohler
By Sam Scott
Don Bohler didn’t set out to play historical detective, bridging America’s fading World War II past with its present, let alone to become a member of the French Legion of Honor in the process.
But six years ago, Bohler, MS ’67, was driving in the countryside near his summer home in Montpellier, France, when he chanced upon a small roadside sign with American and French flags and the English word “Remember.”
The sign brought him to a spread of white crosses in front of a small monument dedicated to 23 French resistance fighters and one American, all killed on August 22, 1944, a bloody day still remembered locally with an annual ceremony.
Baffled how a lone American would come to lie among French guerillas, Bohler began a quest to learn more. He found out that the dead man had been a pilot who happened upon a Nazi convoy and was killed as he dove to attack—a sacrifice never forgotten, at least in that part of France.
But in America, it became clear, no one knew anything about the yearly tribute to the long-dead man, a fact that bothered Bohler, a retired Air Force colonel and Vietnam veteran.
And so began months of record research, Freedom of Information Act requests and Internet searches that ultimately led Bohler to the remaining relatives of 2nd Lt. Richard Francis Hoy III, who was 23 when he plunged into the ground.
Hoy’s cousins weren’t that interested in the distant death of a man they didn’t know. But Bohler persevered in finding someone who was—Hoy’s flight leader. Roy Simmons, who had been flying ahead of Hoy that day, was a spry 86 when Bohler tracked him down near Nashville, Tenn. in 2009.
The call came out of the blue, says Simmons, now 91. He answered the phone to hear someone asking for a Lt. Simmons, a rank the retired lieutenant colonel hasn’t held for nearly 70 years.
“He was very cautious with me because this was something that does not happen every day,” says Bohler. “Then we started slowly talking.”
His memories were still vivid. As flight leader, Simmons had been the first to strafe the German convoy. As he pulled up, he saw Hoy peeling off to follow suit. But when he glanced again, Hoy’s plane was reeling into the ground.
A new pilot who died with only about a dozen missions under his belt, Hoy wasn’t someone Simmons knew well. But he never forgot his death. In 110 combat missions, Hoy was the only wingman he lost.
He’s not an emotional man, Simmons says. He doesn’t often talk or even think about World War II. What happened, happened. But when Bohler arrived to talk about that August day, they both ended up with tears.
“It was an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone,” Simmons says.
Bohler’s discovery of Simmons led the French government to fly the pilot and five family members to France in 2010, where he was decorated at the ceremony honoring the dead of August 22, 1944.
For Bohler, the research was only just beginning. By coincidence, he ran into a group of visitors from Noirmoutier, France, near his Florida home. They were planning an anniversary event to honor the crew of a B-17 shot down just off their beach in 1943.
The 10-man crew—some badly injured—all survived the crash and were captured, serving out the rest of the war as German prisoners of war. The remnants of their bomber can still be seen at low tide off France’s central coast, Bohler says.
His investigation skills freshly honed, Bohler offered to help. He began another search for survivors and their families.
This time, all the airmen had died, the last one in 2006. But Bohler found family members, some of whom knew nothing about their loved one’s brush with early death.
“Almost without exception, they were so overwhelmed,” Bohler says. “In many cases they said they knew nothing about this because our father never talked about it.”
Seven family members flew to France this year for the 70th anniversary of the crash, and for the unveiling of a monument honoring the crew and memorializing the gratitude of the French for their service.
His work earned Bohler the appreciation of the French government. This summer he was awarded the Legion of Honor, France’s highest decoration. It’s a proud distinction, he says, but one that shouldn’t distract from the heroes of his story—the veterans of an era fast fading from living memory.
“They made a difference in the world,” he says. “I can’t tell you how much we owe them as a nation. I just hope we don’t forget.”
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Data is from the past two weeks.