Bart Bartholomew, seen here pictured with drawings of a P-51 mustang, left, and a P-47, flew combat missions in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War. (CNJ staff photo: Eric Kluth)
By Marlena Hartz: CNJ Correspondent
Editor’s note: The CNJ is running a monthly series on war veterans in the Clovis area.
The lilting tales of Gabriel “Bart” Bartholomew are punctuated by hearty chuckles and staunch patriotism. His adventures as a bomber pilot shot down in World War II, a POW in the Korean War and a commander in the Vietnam War resemble the twisting plot of a movie.
In especially perilous times, the 81-year-old Ranchvale resident and retired U.S. Air Force colonel said he would imagine he was simply a character in a film and the reel was rolling.
“It helped to keep my spirits up,” he said.
As a member of the 389th Fighter Squadron of the U.S. Army Air Corps. Bartholomew was among the first to sweep over France and the beaches of Normandy in World War II.
According to one Web site, three days after supporting ground troops in the D-Day invasion, Bartholomew’s fighter wing served as the lead air unit attacking German positions near St. Lo, France, he hopes of establishing an Allied foothold on French soil. Flying in a single-engine, single-seat B-26 aircraft, the weight of securing Normandy for the arrival of ground forces fell proudly on the shoulders of 19-year-old Bartholomew and his squadron.
“I was ready to go,” said Bartholomew, who was born and raised in Los Angeles. “I just wanted to do my job, probably a lot like the guys over in Iraq now.”
Bartholomew’s memory seems amazingly keen. When he speaks of his first missions, he can recall the position of tents on the ground; he can list the precise locations of German forces; he can still feel the horror of watching comrades dangle from water-soaked ropes, striving to climb rocky cliffs in a battle that he said took over 50 percent of their lives.
After completing less than a handful of such airborne missions in World War II, Bartholomew’s bomber was shot down. He found himself fighting a whole new set of odds on German occupied soil.
“My engine quit on me, I coasted for a while at 1,000 feet and landed in a plowed corn field,” he said. “I could see German trucks passing by, but the upside of it was my parachute opened and I landed near the edge of a forest.”
Armed with a survival kit, a foldable map and a fingernail-sized compass, Bartholomew said he set off into the woods near Loire River in France, hoping, somehow, to escape into Spain. His escape turned out to be far from a solitary effort, as a series of strangers and members of the French resistance ushered him to safety.
“If there’s one thing I want to say,” Bartholomew said, pausing, “it’s that there is no doubt in my mind that the French people are the most courageous people alive.”
His son might beg to differ after what his father has been through, which included being shot down again in the Korean War.
“My father also intercepted B-29s in the Korean War and was involved in war strategizing,” David Bartholomew said, “then he spent 10 very difficult months in Korean prison camps. He was also a member of the earliest aerobatics groups, the Red Devils.”
Bartholomew said he was nearly executed on the spot when he was captured by area farmers in North Korea, but fate intervened when a gun battle broke out nearby.
“I am no great hero, no great daredevil. I just wanted to serve my country,” said Bartholomew, who retired as a commander at Cannon Air Force Base in 1974 after more than 30 years in the military.
Perhaps it is this — Bartholomew’s unique mix of modesty, imagination, and wit, coupled with his tendency to “look at the upside of things” — that carried him beyond three wars.
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