Alexander R. Bolling, Jr., Major General, United States Army
Commander, 3rd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, Vietnam
February 1968 – December 1968
When Alexander R. Bolling, Jr. was born (on 11 September 1922) at Fort McPherson, Georgia; his father was a young captain, just embarking on a military career. From the beginning, the new heir to the family name was called “Buddy” (later contracted to “Bud”), and from the beginning, there was never a moment when young Bud Bolling didn’t plan on following in his father’s footsteps. The United States Military Academy at West Point was the only institution of higher learning that he ever considered attending.
His early years were as routine as those of any “army child” can be. With the family moving to a new location at fairly frequent intervals, he attended seven schools before his 1939 graduation from Newton High School in Massachusetts. The following year, he competed for and won a Presidential appointment to West Point and on 1 July 1940, he became a cadet.
World War II erupted during Bolling’s sophomore year, and his class was chosen to forego vacations and other absences from the academy so that it could be graduated in three years. Bolling, already fluent in French, was selected as one of fifty cadets to learn the German language – a selection which would stand him in good stead less than four years later when he escaped from a German prisoner-of-war camp.
On 1 June 1943, 2d Lieutenant Bolling graduated from West Point. After a few weeks of additional tactical training at Fort Benning, Georgia, he proceeded to Camp Robinson, near Little Rock, Arkansas, to join his first unit, the 66th Infantry Division.
Shortly after his arrival at Camp Robinson, he was introduced to Frances Bigbee, the daughter of the vice-principle of the Little Rock Senior High School. From the moment of their first meeting, Bud and Fran were together whenever the wartime training of his unit was suspended momentarily.
In early July 1944, however, the division was transferred to Alabama, and shortly thereafter, Bolling was ordered to proceed to a new organization in Mississippi, the 94th Infantry Division.
Almost before Bud and Fran had time to say good-bye to one another, the 94th moved north by train to New York City, embarked as an entity (20,000 men) on the British luxury liner Queen Elizabeth, and sailed eastward. The ship arrived in Scotland four and a half days later, and the troops were immediately moved by train to southern England. Equipment was drawn. The men and their new equipment were directed aboard landing craft, and by mid-August 1944, the 4th Infantry Division had raced across Omaha Beach and moved into line in Brittany. It had been a rapid trip from the heart of Mississippi to southwestern France.
The fall months were spent containing German units bottled up in the ports of Saint Nazaire and Lorient. Bud Bolling, an infantry platoon leader, spent much of his time patrolling behind enemy lines and redirecting fire against targets he had located while on patrol. At one point, while deep in enemy territory, he accidentally encountered some French underground forces, with whom he remained an entire week gathering information. His knowledge of French was of particular value during this period.
When the Battle of Ardennes occurred in mid-December 1944, Bolling’s unit was rushed north to fill one of the gaps created. After bitter fighting in painfully cold weather, the German advance was stopped, and the 94th Infantry Division (in mid-January 1945) began a counteroffensive along the Moselle River, fighting north toward Trier.
The German high command deployed its elite 11th Panzer Division against the 94th. Intense combat was the result, and on 20 January 1945, Lt. Bolling was wounded and captured while attempting to reach an isolated infantry company.
Bolling was taken to the rear. His wounds were treated with what little medicine the German captors had at the time. He was then evacuated another 10 miles, where he was questioned, fed, and given a bed on which to rest.
Shortly after midnight, he managed to escape from his guard, hiding in a snow-filled ditch while his captors searched for him. His freedom was short-lived, however, because a weary German soldier decided to return to the troop area after the search by taking a direct route across the field where Bud was hiding. Shortly thereafter, a frightened Lieutenant Bolling was standing in front of a German colonel wondering what would happen.
Instead of punishing him, the colonel extended the congratulations of the commanding general of the 11th Panzer Division for the young American’s demonstration of bravery. He then explained that Bolling would have to be evacuated to the rear more rapidly than anticipated and that this would be punishment enough because the food was not as plentiful in the rear. At 2:00 a.m., a truck arrived. Bolling was awakened and taken to an isolated farm house occupied by a German housewife and her elderly mother.
The small home was located at the top of a treeless hill. With snow more than three feet deep, the only access to the building was by way of a narrow path running some four hundred yards from the road below. On the road, at the entrance to the path, there were two armed guards.
There was no way to escape. It turned out that the “Hausfrau” had a husband who had been taken prisoner of war two years earlier and had been incarcerated in the United States. His letters from America gave such a glowing report of his treatment that the woman and her mother seemed to go out of their way to show their gratitude. Though food was scarce throughout Germany, Lieutenant Bolling was treated to meals of fresh eggs, pork, potatoes and milk, and the two women took turns throughout the night to keep the small wood stove burning in the kitchen while Bolling slept on its dirt floor. Little did he know that this would be the last warmth and the last good food he would experience for more than two months.
The comfort ended abruptly on 22 January, when Bud was transported to a more standard prison camp north of the Rhine River in the town of Limburg. Because his Army serial number gave away the fact that he was a career officer, and because the Germans knew that there was an American Division commander in Germany bearing the same name as their new prisoner, he was immediately extracted from the group of prisoners at the camp and taken to a medieval castle in the middle of the town of Diez, just three kilometers away. In this castle was a highly sophisticated interrogation center.
Bud spent ten days in the center, living in a small cell high in the tower of the castle. Given only a bowl of bland soup to eat each day, he was periodically taken to a luxuriously appointed room, where he was questioned, threatened, and occasionally punished for failure to respond. It was a long ten days.
The Germans finally gave up on Bolling, and he was returned to the camp at Limburg. Planning for a second attempt began. However, just as plans were nearing completion, the entire group of approximately five hundred prisoners was marched to the railroad station and placed in railroad boxcars. For five days, the prisoners were kept locked in the boxcars. Once or twice a day, the trains would halt, the doors would slide open, and German guards would throw chunks of cheese into the freezing mass of humanity trapped inside.
On the fifth day, the train arrived at Hammelburg, near Schweinfurt, Germany. Those prisoners who could walk were marched up a hill to a permanent prison camp. Those who had died on the trip were left behind. Those who were critically ill were taken to a dispensary established for that purpose. It was now the tenth of March, and Bud Bolling had not seen a warm room or a decent meal since he left the little farm house on top of the hill.
Conditions at Hammelburg were almost as harsh as those at Limburg. Germans who were not at the front had very little food for themselves, and they certainly had no intention of giving their prisoners more food than the locals citizens could expect. Blankets were also in short supply, so the prisoners had to sleep bundled together to keep from freezing to death.
Bolling and a few of his friends decided that escape was the only way to get food. Even if recaptured, the captors would be inclined to feed their new captives in order to find out how American officers got so far behind the lines.
On 27 March 1945, after an abortive attempt to reach the camp by a small contingent of General Patton’s army, Bud and three friends managed to escape during the resulting confusion. Two of the friends were too weak to go on and turned back. Eleven days later, after wandering many miles in an attempt to get through enemy lines, Bud and his friend, Bob Jonscher, of Washington, D.C. – plus two soldiers who had joined them along the way – entered the town of Obervolkach on the Main River, thinking that it had already been captured by advancing American forces. It hadn’t, but the town mayor surrendered to Bolling and his group.
With his knowledge of both French and German, Bud located some forty French prisoners who had worked in the town for almost three years. A provisional French platoon was formed, using confiscated hunting weapons and local bicycles. It was charged with the task of guarding the town till the arrival of American units.
Bud and his companions then went upstairs in the town hall and gorged themselves on American Red Cross parcels which had somehow managed to reach the French prisoners. They then fell into a deep sleep in immaculately clean beds.
The following morning, on 8 April 1945, American troops from the 42d Infantry Division were led into town by one of the French prisoners, who had used a confiscated bicycle to find friendly forces. The young lieutenant was processed through administrative channels to the large facilities that had been established to handle expected to be liberated at war’s end. Because of the length of time he had spent in enemy hands, Bolling was, in accordance with the rules of the Geneva Convention, supposed to be evacuated from the theater of war. However, he found an opportunity to go north to visit his father, General Alec Bolling, whose troops were in the process of capturing Hannover and who, until that time, had thought his son had been killed in action on 20 January.
Always the professional military man, General Bolling agreed that a career officer should remain in the combat zone at least until victory had been achieved. Thus, arrangements were made for Lieutenant Bolling to be assigned to the 84th Infantry Division, his father’s unit.
Bud had lost forty pounds as a prisoner, so General Bolling kept his son at division headquarters for a week to rest and regain his strength. He was then sent down to the front lines, where he became the commander of one of the most committed infantry companies in the division.
The war ended without further incident. Bolling and his company finished the conflict on the Elbe River, just thirty miles from Berlin. The unit was then given an area to occupy pending the arrival of trained military government elements.
It was during this period that Bud had an opportunity to repay the kindness of the 11th Panzer Division leaders. With thousands of hungry and disheartened German soldiers fleeing the Russians and attempting to get back to their homes, roadblocks had to be established to screen the people pushing westward. Bolling had all soldiers identified as former members of the 11th Panzer Division brought to his command post. There they were told the story of 20 January, given cigarettes and food, and thanked personally be a very grateful American officer.
With the creation of zones to be occupied be each of the victorious nations, Bolling’s unit was moved south to the vicinity of Heildelberg. Shortly thereafter, Captain (note the promotion) Bolling was ordered to proceed to West Point to become an instructor in the German language.
Prior to assuming his new duties, however, he was granted a leave of absence. On 17 December 1945, Bud Bolling and Frances Bigbee were married in Little Rock. They proceeded to New York.
The next twenty years were characterized by a pattern similar to that followed by Bud’s father – – frequent moves and interesting sights. The assignment at West Point lasted almost three years, and during that period, the Bollings had their first child, Kathryn Josephine Bolling. She was born on 28 July 1947.
In 1948, the family moved to Brazil after Bud had completed an intensified course in the Portuguese language. Shortly after their arrival, on 18 January 1949, their son, Alexander Russell Bolling III, was born.
The tour of duty in Brazil was followed be advanced military schooling, service in Taiwan, a second assignment at West Point, and a year at the Army War College. By this time, the conflict in Vietnam was festering, and Bolling now a lieutenant colonel became an advisor to the Vietnamese Army. Upon his return, he was assigned to the Directorate of Operations on the Department of the Army staff in Washington.
Three years later, after a promotion to colonel, Bud was offered, in December 1966, an opportunity to join the famous 82nd Airborne Division in North Carolina. He was delighted, for this had been a lifelong dream to work with elite soldiers as a brigade or regimental commander.
Slightly more than a year after he had joined the 82nd, as a commanding officer of its 3rd Brigade, Colonel Bolling and his unit were ordered by the President of the United States to fly without delay to Vietnam to assist in countering the enemy threat during the Tet Offensive of February 1968. Bolling, with 4,000 officers and men and all of their equipment, began the ten-thousand mile trip within twenty four hours after receipt of orders from the White House and completed it within ten days.
For the third time, Bud Bolling was back in combat. It wasn’t until the summer of 1969 that he was ordered home, after eighteen months of difficult and intense fighting.
Having been promoted while in Vietnam, General Bolling was assigned once again to the Pentagon in Washington as Director of Organization for the United States Army. In less than two years, he had received another promotion (to major general) and was sent to Fort Lewis, Washington to command one of the Army’s largest installations.
It was a delightful assignment. In 1972, however, Bud was ordered once again to Brazil to assume the highest U.S. military post in the country. His familiarity with the language and acquaintanceship with the incumbent Brazilian leaders was probably the reason army authorities chose to send him there, but it resulted in his decision the following year to retire from the Army and settle somewhere in the United States so that he could at least occasionally see his children and grandchildren.
On 1 September 1973, after more than thirty-three years in uniform, Bud retired from the Army. During his many years of service to his nation, he had earned two Distinguished Service Medals, three Silver Stars for bravery under fire, three Legions of Merit, two Bronze Stars for valor, eighteen Air Medals, The Purple Heart for wounds received in combat, and numerous other decorations. He was most proud, however, of his parachutist badge and the two combat infantryman’s badges, which he often said were the true symbols of his life as a soldier.
General Bolling passed away on Thursday morning, October 6, 2011 in Dallas , TX at 89 years of age. He will be interred in historic Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg , VA. He will join his wife and many generations of his family in peace. A memorial service will be held at Christ & Grace Episcopal Church in Petersburg. The Golden Brigade Chapter will be well represented at his service.