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RIP Capt. Dan Bowling (1922-2016)

June 10, 2016 in Aviation

I was expecting this. On Friday, May 27, my friend Dan Bowling came down with pneumonia and was admitted to the ER. On June 3, he was transferred to a hospice. He passed away this morning (Thursday) at 10 am. As much as I miss him, this time death was a friend.

Dan’s fellow pilot and good friend in the 445th Bomb Squadron of the 321st Bomb Group, 57th Bomb Wing (the “Catch-22” bomb wing) Paul Young said of Dan, “He was the squadron leader. That’s different from the squadron commander.”

Of all the guys it has been my privilege to know over the past 40 years, many famous, Dan was special. At the time I met him, he had Alzheimers, and knew it. But those two days we had together, “the squadron leader” was present. It was easy to see why Paul Young called him the best man he had ever known in his life.

Dan grew up a tough miner’s son, son of a Socialist union organizer, in the company town (controlled by Phelps-Dodge) in the copper-mining town of Bisbee, Arizona. He learned at an early age to defend his beliefs with his fists against the sons of the sellouts. What he learned then became the arc of his life: to become the best he could be, and then to use that to protect and defend those he was involved with.

Dan arrived on Corsica as a replacement pilot in late August 1944. He had more time in a B-25 as pilot in command than the pilot who checked him out in the squadron. Within a few weeks, he was a Lead Pilot for missions. At the time, the group commander was demanding five-minute straigfht-and-level bomb runs to get “a good picture,” saying “I want a star out of this.” That was when the group suffered casualties against the 500 88mm flak guns in the Brenner Pass. Dan and his bombardier, Joe Silnutz, spent their practice hours figuring out how to put the coordinates into the Norden bomb sight that would allow evasive action on the bomb run, coming straight and level for the last 45 seconds. When the Colonel would attend the briefing and say how much he wanted those straight and level runs, when he left Dan would stand up and say “Follow me.” And they did. “The missions I led were the most successful in terms of effect, and had the lowest casualties.”

Here’s his most amazing mission: the mission to stop the Germans at Argenta in the final Allied offensive in Italy.

Mission 846, to bomb the German troop assembly area at Argenta in front of the Australian division of the Eighth Army, was Dan Bowling’s 60th and most memorable mission of the war. Newly promoted to Captain, Bowling led 18 Mitchells at the forefront of a formation of 48 B-25s from all four squadrons in B-25J 43-27899, “Flo,” one of the newest aircraft in the squadron, with Second Lieutenant Paul Riggenbach in the right seat, navigator First Lieutenant Robert Mitchell guiding the formation to the target, bombardier First Lieutenant Joe Silnutz as group lead on whose aim all others would depend.

The pre-mission briefing emphasized that timing was of the essence. There were two German divisions at Argenta which it was feared were ready to attempt a counterattack. Bowling, bombardier Silnutz and navigator Mitchell were told the Allied troops would
light smoke pots to mark the lines, since the target was very close to the Allied positions. “If the white smoke changes to yellow, do not bomb,” was the order. Yellow smoke would signify that the Allied troops had begun their attack. With the numerous occasions throughout the war when Allied bombers had hit their own side at places like Cassino and St. Lo, it was crucial for the bombers to arrive over the target on time, ahead of the attack. The thousands of 20-pound fragmentation bombs they would
shower over the enemy troops would give the Allied troops the cover they needed at the moment they started their advance. At the last minute, Bowling asked for information on the defenses and was informed there were over 200 anti-aircraft weapons. “We were to bomb at 10,500 feet and 200 miles per hour. This was the
most heavily-defended target we had gone against. I knew it was going to be tough.”

Takeoff was at 0758 hours. Both Silnutz and Mitchell had argued with Bowling about taking a new airplane on its first mission. A preview of things to come this day was offered when the right engine took three tries to get it to turn over properly
and start. At the runway, there was a sharp drop on the right engine magnetos when Bowling checked them prior to takeoff.
With one turn over the field for join-up, Bowling led the 48 Mitchells on the 40 minute flight north over the Adriatic to Revenna, where they would turn inland and head for Argenta. “When we were climbing to 10,500 feet, I realized the plane was very
sluggish. When we got to altitude, I had to set the engines at nearly full-throttle to maintain 200 miles an hour, and the cylinder head temperatures on both engines were nearly at the red line.” This meant severe problems for Bowling. He was now eight
minutes ahead of schedule for hitting the target.

“I had to do something to save the engines, so I notified the formation I was reducing speed 20 miles and hour and climbing 500 feet. Three minutes from the target, we would dive back down to the correct altitude and pick up the right speed.” It was
crucially important the formation have the right speed and altitude when they dropped their loads, since those were the settings in the Norden bombsights, and any variance would mean they could not make an accurate drop.

The bombers arrived over the target three minutes early and Bowling increased power and dove back to 10,500 feet as he picked up speed back to 200 miles per hour. “Suddenly all hell broke loose with black flak puffs right where we would have been had I not dived and picked up speed. Those flak gunners were right on us. Joe opened the bomb bay.” As the bombers turned onto their run, Mitchell called that he saw yellow smoke on the ground. Silnutzer replied “bomb doors closing.” Bowling sensed something wrong and screamed at his bombardier to re-open the doors. “Roll forward six or seven hundred feet and bomb! I’ll take the blame!”

Mitchell kept arguing they had to abort, that they were too late. “Then the flak was all around us. The plane on our right was hit twice and gone. I pulled to the right and had both engines past the red line, waiting for the explosion.” As the formation followed and evaded with Bowling’s tactic, the German gunners put a solid field of exploding flak where they would have been. “They were ten seconds too late to get us.” They turned
back left and 45 seconds later Silnutz announced “bombs away!” Bowling immediately rolled left and reduced power. “The engines sounded ready to blow, so I got us headed back to the Adriatic, where at least we’d have a chance of being picked up. Moments later, the cylinder head temperatures came back down to red line. Still dangerous, but now with the bomber in a dive for the coast, cooler air was circulating through the cowling.”

Forty minutes later, the bombers were back at Ancona. Bowling taxied to the hardstand, where two jeeps with four officers were waiting. “I thought we’d done it, hit our own
troops.” He shut down while Silnutz and Mitchell climbed out. “I saw it was the intel officer, ops officer, group bombardier and the deputy group CO. I figured we’d had it.” And then the four were grabbing Silnutz and Mitchell and shaking their hands.” When
Bowling crawled out, Colonel Camara, the deputy group CO, told him the mission had been perfect, that they had hit the Germans directly on target with a 100 percent drop.

After the war, Dan Bowling helped create the world we grew up in. His brother-in-law had been Navy SeaBee and his father-in-law had been a businessman. They created a construction company and built half of Torrance, California, and a third of Palos Verdes Estates. “After a year knocking down people’s homes, I spent the rest of my life building homes for people.”

Dan will be interred next Wednesday. I have been asked to speak as “the advocate for the dead.” A job I hate. That I am privileged to perform.

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9 responses to RIP Capt. Dan Bowling (1922-2016)

  1. R.I.P to a true legend!!

  2. Nice tribute Tom. Another one gone from the greatest generation RIP.Capt Bowling.

  3. I knew Dan because he had been our landlord since 1990 in Wilmington he was such a nice guy and a Legend and I was very lucky to have known him. R.I.P. DAN BOWLING

  4. Practicing my words for tomorrow. How to reduce a life to 4 minutes? And then I read the other speeches and realized there was a through-line: be the best you can be at what you are doing, and use that skill and ability in the service of those around you.

    Unlike “I’ve got mine, Jack , screw you!,” the modern American slogan.

    We are so far less than they were.

  5. Today, I had the privilege of learning something my good friend Joseph Galloway learned after writing “We Were Soldiers.”

    You may write what we write for money, and you may be very happy for the income (all writers always need income, it’s how we get to continue being writers), but there are some books you write from the heart and it’s for Those Who Are Gone and for their families and friends and loved ones, and any professional success is thoroughly secondary (except it’s these books that always end up being the ones that give the professional success). And sometimes, you don’t realize you wrote from the heart till you see this response and you realize “oh yeah, I wouldn’t have done it otherwise.”

    Today I had the privilege of attending the remembrance, funeral and reception for Dan Bowling, one of the “major characters” in my book The Bridgebusters. I got to find out just who I had been privileged to keep alive forever (Michael Connelly once said that the writer of non-fiction has the power to bring the dead back to life). I knew when I met him that of all the really special guys I have had the wonderful opportunity to know over the past 40 years – the guys I grew up in awe of – that he was “up at the top of the list.” I only got to meet him twice, and yet I thought of myself as his friend.

    It turns out that he was the kind of guy that everyone who ever met him thought that, no matter the circumstances they met him, they were his friend. And they were. Over 200 people came to his memorial (held in the church that he built), and over the day many of them came up to me to thank me for telling his story (and I was happy as a clam to sign those 30 books they presented personally), and to tell me their “Dan Bowling story.” Every last one of them had a really touching, really positive story to tell about him. Family, relatives, friends.

    He used to say, “What’s mine is yours, if you need it.” And three people told of seeing him take the coat off his back and give it to a homeless person on a cold day. As a homebuilder and developer, he worked with homeless groups to create homes for the homeless. (“I spent a year knocking down people’s homes, and the rest of my life building homes.”)

    He bought one of the first motor homes and took his family to all 49 continental states and all of Canada (“and if he could have figured a way to get that motor home to Hawaii, he’d have gone there”) because he wanted to see all of the country he loved and wanted his family to see it and love it too.

    I had heard stories from the men he flew with about how he used his skill and ability to figure out how to save them and lower casualties, while achieving the mission goal. It turns out from the stories I heard, that this was how he did with everything he ever did.

    There’s a whole lot more I am still processing, but I am so happy I got to meet the guy of whom his wingman Paul Young said, “He was the squadron leader, that’s different from the squadron commander.”

    And being “the advocate of the dead” was good too. I told a funny story about him that had been told to me by one of his squadron mates, and his widow – who is deep in Alzheimers and not expected to be long in following him – sat up, opened her eyes , and smiled when I told the story.

  6. Mr. Cleaver,
    I am the girlfriend of Papa Dan’s youngest grandson, Dan. Unfortunately, I was unable to meet you personally at rhe funeral, but Dan has spoken very highly of you, and ilI can see why. I just wanted to let you know, you gave an amazing speech about a man so great, words cannot express it. I believe I speak for Dan when I say, thank you. Papa Dan would have been proud.
    R.I.P. Papa Dan. We love and miss you dearly.

    • Jahlela:

      Your boyfriend is amazing. I think he’s the reincarnation of his grandfather. I love him. He’s wonderful. If you are lucky enough to marry into that amazing family, you’re going to be the luckiest young woman I know on the planet.

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