In tribute: Commander’s life full of close calls

By Kevin Wilson

CMI staff writer

kwilson@cnjonline.com

During the eulogy for former Cannon Air Force Base commander Gabriel “Bart” Bartholomew, family members couldn’t shake the Sophocles quote, “One must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been.”

Gabriel "Bart" Bartholomew

Gabriel “Bart” Bartholomew

The underlying story about Bartholomew, however, would be the numerous times he almost didn’t get to the afternoon. Long before he became commander at Cannon, or before he died Jan. 30 at the age of 90, Bartholomew served in three wars, was shot down twice as a pilot and came within seconds of being executed by overseas captors.

“You kind of have to assume your tomorrows are limited,” said Mike Connolly, who served at various bases at the same time as Bartholomew. They became good friends through their final years of service and their eventual retirements.

Born Oct. 3, 1923 in Los Angeles to immigrant parents, Bartholomew grew up in the Great Depression, and had to work various jobs to help the family survive.

Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943, Bartholomew found an opportunity to be a pilot and attended night school so he could attain the required degree to fly. Almost as quickly as he got a chance to fly, he received the nickname “Bart” because it was easier for commanding officers to say, and the name stuck throughout his career and private life.

He flew combat missions over Europe during D-Day, and was into his 17th mission when he was shot down over German soil. He escaped to Spain with a small survival kit, map and compass, largely thanks to help from strangers and members of the French resistance.

It wasn’t his only brush with death, as he flew combat missions during the Korean War. He was shot down, and was found by Korean farmers. The farmers convinced a soldier to execute Bartholomew, and his gun was raised before a commanding officer arrived and intervened.

He instead spent nearly a year in a Chinese POW camp, and was listed as missing in action before he was repatriated in 1953.

“My dad would say by his own right he was surprised he lived to 90,” son Robert Bartholomew said. “He probably thought he was going to be killed in both of those accounts.”

Bartholomew, who also flew in Vietnam and commended the first F-111 training squadron, would joke he was an “interceptor pilot,” because he had a tendency to intercept enemy bullets.

His honors included the Purple Heart, the Distinguished Flying Cross and Legion of Merit. He was the first person to say others deserved the awards far more — particularly the Purple Heart, which he received for an injury suffered while he tried to get out of the cockpit of a crashed plane.

By the time Connolly met him in 1971 at Langley Air Force Base, Bartholomew was the director of fighter operations.

“He had, really, the key job in the fighter community in the Air Force,” said Connolly, who served under Bartholomew during his time as commander at Cannon. “He was an inspirational guy. He was a hard worker, but he always had time to sit down and talk to you or work on any issues or problems. He was a good guy to work with and for.”

Following his retirement, Bartholomew worked various jobs, including time owning and operating a local Texaco station, where he taught his sons the various tasks of a full-service gas station.

Family members didn’t give too much thought to how much one different action could have led to an untimely death, because there were just too many ways their father’s path could have veered.

“He was quite an athlete,” son Russell Bartholomew said. “He and his brother Nick both had a legitimate shot at Major League Baseball. Nick had a tryout for the New York Giants, but developed asthma. For Dad, it was a really big debate,” but he opted to stay in the Air Force.

Bartholomew never stopped flying, and owned a 1947 Fairchild Model 24 named “Bart’s Baby II.” But he took up other interests, including driving his 1966 Ford Mustang and taking his Bayliner boat out to “Bart’s Cove,” a special corner of Ute Lake he named himself. The fishing was good, family members remember, but part of that could be chalked up to a Bayliner armed with so much gear it rivaled commercial fishing boats.

He accomplished numerous other things in his life, including a degree from the University of Maryland, a stint as an advisor to the Japanese Air Force and a starring role in several air shows. But no one story could define him.

“He lived through, basically, every major event of the 20th century and participated in most of them,” Connolly said. “He always had time for others, and he would help folks out however he could. And he never asked for anything for himself.”

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