Doughboy MIA For June 2024: Colonel Raynal Cawthorne Bolling

Published: 10 June 2024

By Daniel C. Williamson, Lieutenant Colonel, Retired U.S.A.
Director of Research and Field Investigation – Air
Doughboy M.I.A.

Bolling in peace and war

Raynal Cawthorne Bolling in peace and war.

Over one hundred years have passed since one the most influential American figures in the history of American air power, went missing in action between two small communes in France’s Somme region. On 26 March 1918, while conducting a tour of British combat air operations east of Amiens, Colonel Raynal Cawthorne Bolling, the Assistant Chief of Staff of the United States Air Service, and his driver, Private Paul Holder, found themselves in the center of the German Army’s surprisingly aggressive Operation Michael. Traveling east along the Romerstrasse (Roman Road) in a Fiat staff car, toward the withdrawing British front lines, the two out of place Americans unknowingly passed through the British front lines and fired upon by a machinegun position of advancing German Storm Troopers. Colonel Bolling died in a small gun battle while Private Holder became a prisoner of war. Colonel Raynal Cawthorne Bolling is our Doughboy MIA of the month.

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas on 1 September 1877, his family moved frequently in his early life, he would complete high school in Philadelphia. As a gifted student he would go on to graduate from Harvard College in 1900 and receive a Law degree from Harvard Law School in 1902. In 1909 he married Anna Tucker Phillips, a member of Boston’s influential Phillips family, and moved to Greenwich, Connecticut where they raised their son and three daughters.

Before the war, Raynal Bolling became famous as a New York lawyer and General Counsel for US Steel. He successfully fought against President Teddy Roosevelt’s initial anti-trust laws. But after the sinking of the Lusitania, on 7 May 1915, Raynal Bolling realized the United States would eventually go to war against Germany. Bolling was learning how to fly at the same time and understood the future military potential of the airplane in war. In June 1915 he would join New York’s prestigious Aero Club which would prove to be the catalyst for his rise as an advocate for building a modern American air service.

The Gallaudet “Military Tractor” used by the Aviation Detachment at Garden City (Wikipedia)

As an Aero Club member, Bolling became a central figure promoting the use of aircraft in military operations. Particularly, Bolling was a member of club executive committees dealing with aviation law, governmental affairs, and military aviation. Bolling’s role within these committees established him as an aviation expert among elite aviation circles. Eventually he became one of the three men identified as the “key architects of American airpower.” The three, at the beginning of American’s involvement in the war, were Major Billy Mitchell, Major Benjamin Foulois (pronounced Full-Wah), and Bolling. Michell and Foulois were both regular US Army Officers.

Bolling, commissioned as a First Lieutenant in the newly formed New York National Guard on 1 November 1915. With the financial backing of the affluent Aero Club’s members, Lieutenant Bolling organized and command one of the United States’ first military aero squadrons, the New York National Guard’s First Aero Company. Under Bolling’s command the unit expanded to become the First Reserve Aero Squadron and from July 1916 to November 1916 the War Department conditionally federalized by the squadron during the U.S. border crisis with Mexico. Unfortunately, the unit never deployed out of New York. Now a Captain, Bolling’s knowledge, enthusiasm, and reputation as an airpower expert received notice by political and military leaders in Washington D.C.

On 3 April 1917, three days before the United States declaration of war on Germany and the Axis Powers, Bolling dressed in his uniform and requested placement on active duty. His offer was immediately accepted and accepted a commission as Major in the Army’s Signal Corps. Major Bolling, alongside Major Benjamin Foulois, the active-duty Army’s lead aviator, were both assigned to draft The Aviation Act of 1917. This was a Congressional bill authorizing the Air Service program under the command and control of the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps.

Selected by the War Department in June 1917, Bolling led the “Bolling Commission” and departed for war torn Europe. The commission was an American aeronautical panel sent to Europe for the purpose of evaluating and choosing combat aircraft and equipment for production by the American manufactures in the United States. The Bolling Commission also sought to lay a foundation for the American Air Service units in Europe. Bolling himself recommended buying ‘fighting airplanes and bombers,” not just support observation aircraft as he felt strategic bombing was a key aspect of air warfare. More than anything, Bolling, like Colonel William “Billy” Mitchell, was a fierce advocate of military preparedness and remained in Europe after the commission completed its tasks. After he decided to stay, Bolling explained to his wife in a letter “Whatever may be thought of our delay in the decision to enter the war, our failure to make every possible preparation during the last three years is the greatest shame and crime in our national history.”

Gen. John J. Pershing, American Expeditionary Force chief, promoted Bolling to Colonel and made him head of the Air Service’s Supply, Communication, and Training programs with the title of Assistant Chief of Staff of the Air Service of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). Before long Bolling grew tired of the political infighting at headquarters between the non-aviators and aviators on the staff of the Air Service. He also sought to free himself of enduring admonishments from a jealous Benjamin Foulois, now a Brigadier General and in command over Bolling. Foulois reduced Bolling’s responsibilities and role and kept the capable Bolling from war critical work. A person of action, Bolling requested General Pershing for a combat command and was subsequently selected by the General to command the Air Service for the US II Corps. He immediately proceeded to reconnoiter future airfields and research British air operations near the front lines east of Amiens, France. Unfortunately, this was during the German’s Operation Micheal offensive and the front lines were very fluid due to new German Storm Trooper tactics and the British Army’s lack of preparedness.

On 26 March 1918, Bolling and his driver, Private Holder, passed through the town of Foucaucourt-en-Santrees heading east along the “Roman Road”, now known as D1029. Two British officers in the town had told Bolling the German lines were about three miles east along the road. Bolling and Holder drove forward to get a better look at the action. They barely drove a mile before coming under fire from German machine gunners hidden in a draw. Holder tried to turn the car around when German gunners disabled the vehicle. Holder and Bolling jumped out of the staff car on the north side of the road, each falling in separate shell holes. Two German Soldiers advanced upon the unarmed Holder, who was nearer the German lines, shooting at him. Bolling had a revolver and killed one of the two German Soldiers, saving Holder’s life. The other German Soldier shot and killed Colonel Bolling. Private Holder became a prisoner of war, released in late November 1918.

Later, captured German Officers would state they saw Colonel Bolling’s body buried by German Soldiers in the embankment on the north side of the road. Efforts to locate Bolling’s remains after the war were unsuccessful. After his release, Private Holder provided information of Bolling’s location when killed, but it did not prove helpful to searchers. Both Bolling’s own brother and his two brothers-in-law pushed for further searches. One of his brothers-in-law, William Phillips, was an Assistant Secretary (Under Secretary) of State for the United States to the Wilson. But even his efforts to have a thorough search conducted failed to produce results. To date, no trace of Colonel Bolling’s remains have ever been located. He is the most senior US Air Service Officer to die in the Great War and the first American Commissioned Officer killed in combat.

On 1 July 1918, the Army honored the fallen aviator by bestowing the name “Bolling Field” on a new aviation facility south of Washington D.C. Renamed Bolling Air Force Base in 1948, it has been operational for over a hundred years. In 2010, Bolling Air Force Base merged with Naval Support Facility Anacostia to form Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling. On 7 January 1922 Greenwich Connecticut honored Colonel Raynal C. Bolling with a full-sized bronze statue, placing it on the grounds of the Greenwich Board of Education in Greenwich Connecticut. For bravery in saving the life of his driver while sacrificing his own, the Army awarded Colonel Bolling the Distinguished Service Medal, and was honored by the French government with the award of both their Legion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre.

Doughboy MIA has an Aviation Team dedicated to locating missing in action American Aviators of World War One. The DBMIA Aviation team is actively researching Colonel Bolling’s MIA with the goal of finding and repatriating his remains. Until accomplished Colonel Raynal Cawthorne Bolling remains on the Tablets of the Missing, Somme American Military Cemetery in Bony, France.

Would you like to be involved with solving the case of Colonel Raynal Cawthorne Bolling, and all the other Americans still in MIA status from World War I? You can! Click here to make a tax-deductible donation to our non-profit organization today, and help us bring them home! Help us do the best job possible and give today, with our thanks.  Remember: A man is only missing if he is forgotten.


Share this article

Related posts