MANTON — Warren Rowland Bostick was 21 years old when his duties as a United States Air Force fighter pilot took him to Jesenice, Italy, where his plane was shot down exactly 75 years ago today — April 2, 1945.
Warren's memory lives on, both here among his living relatives, and in Europe, where a memorial service will be held in honor of the young pilot. Attending the service will be Ales Bedic, a historian from Slovenia who has researched the crash and is in the process of writing a book about the incident.
Warren (known by his friends as "Rolly") was born May 11, 1923 to father, Rexford, and mother, Jane, who ran Bostick's Drug Store in Manton. Rolly came from a family of some military distinction, as his uncle, Ray, was the first soldier from Wexford County to be killed in World War I.
Rolly graduated from Manton High School in 1941 and in the fall, he enrolled in the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in the pharmacist course. During his junior year of college, he enlisted in the Air Force.
"Rowland was a popular young man in the community," reads his obituary. "He enjoyed the respect and good will of all who knew him, both as a student, and as a friendly, accommodating assistant in his father's drug store."
Upon enlistment, Rolly received training at Moore Field, in Mission, Texas, and was the first Manton boy to earn his wings as a fighter pilot.
He was commissioned a Second Lieutenant on June 27, 1944, and began his combat duty in Italy in March 1945 with the 87th Fighter Squadron, 79th Fighter Group, also known as the "Skeeters." Rolly piloted a P-47D (Thunderbolt) type aircraft during his service.
"Maturity revealed him as a fine physical specimen of manhood; tall, well proportioned and handsome," his obituary reads. "His keen mental intellect was enhanced by a carefree spirit, which made it easy for him to obtain his objectives without stress and worry. Cool-headed and fearless, he had all the qualifications needed for daring and dangerous service in the Air Force."
On April 2, 1945, Rolly took part in an armed reconnaissance mission to Yugoslavia (now Slovenia). Kenneth Powell, with the Manton Area Historical Society, said Jesenice was home to ironworks and steelworks facilities that the German military took over for military production, so this was the military target and reconnaissance interest.
According to military documents, while strafing a locomotive at Jesenice, Rolly's plane sustained damage which prevented him from attaining sufficient altitude to climb over the mountains in the vicinity. He proceeded down a valley where the ship suddenly stalled, crashed into some trees and burst into flames.
"Your son was not seen to leave the plane," reads a letter the U.S. military sent to Rolly's parents. "Just before the crash landing, he called on the radio that he was having difficulty and would have to attempt a belly-in. That was the last thing we heard from him."
The site of the actual crash was Moste, 29 miles southeast of Jesenice, located in the extreme northwestern part of Italy, near the border with Austria.
Initially classified as "missing in action," Rolly later was declared "killed in action" when Army investigators found that local inhabitants had recovered his body and buried it, later taking it to the U.S. military cemetery in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.
Starting around three years ago, Bedic began an extensive study of the event, which included an excavation of the crash site, where he found some remains of aircraft (most were removed right after crash, but since the Thunderbolt exploded, some parts were scattered around), parts of Rolly's uniform and parachute.
"We were in contact also with USAF, so we got as much data as possible, including flight path, reports of other pilots, etc.," Bedic wrote in a correspondence to Powell updating him on the progress of his research.
"The biggest problem we had was finding photo of pilot. We were checking and asking on almost every website that had any kind of information of pilot ... Today in the middle of night, I found your Facebook page, while looking into Bostick’s pharmacy. You can imagine the relief and excitement when photo of Warren R. Bostick showed up (had to open bottle of whisky)."
Today at exactly 9:25 a.m. (the time of the crash, which is 3:25 a.m. in the U.S.), Bedic said they will hold a small commemoration for Rolly at the site of the crash.
"After three years of research, I have (maybe strange-feeling) that Rowland is finally at home, after 75 years," Bedic wrote to those who've been supporting his research efforts. "In my years of research, Rolly became my friend, even I never met him, and I will never forget my excitement when I saw his picture for the first time in The Manton Sun newspaper."
Rolly's great nephew, Keith Lovin, said he was quite surprised to find out that someone was researching his uncle's death.
Growing up, Lovin said he never heard about how Rolly passed away; it wasn't until his grandmother, Jane, passed away that he heard the story.
"It really wasn't passed down but it's a shame because we have a really cool family history," Lovin said. "It was a different time back then. If your country called, you answered. Those guys were probably terrified and really had to dig deep. I'm really excited and proud that someone's taken the time to honor him."