Carl “Cotton” Bolick, 89, of Cramerton is taking his time writing an important letter.
It’s an expression of thanks to three German women who saved his life during World War II.
Bolick, who recently connected with them, wants to get things just right. And that’s a challenge. How can he say all that he feels?
Sixty-eight years ago, Bolick parachuted out of a burning plane with his right foot dangling by a tendon.
He survived the jump and 15 months in German prison camps.
Liberated by Russian army troops, he came home and enrolled at Gardner-Webb College. Newspapers interested him so he majored in journalism. His teacher was future Charlotte Observer columnist Kays Gary. Later, Bolick decided he wanted to teach.
For 25 years, he taught and coached at West Mecklenburg High School. He was athletic director at Charlotte Country Day for eight years.
Considered one of the nation’s top high-school coaches, Bolick was a finalist in the American College Basketball Coaches Association Coach of the Year competition. He’s in the West Mecklenburg High School Hall of Fame, the Charlotte Baseball Hall of Fame and the N.C. Athletic Directors Association Hall of Fame.
For his war service, Bolick got a Purple Heart, a Distinguished Flying Cross, three Air Medals and a Presidential citation.
From mill to bomber
In the months after the Pearl Harbor attack, he worked in a Cramerton mill – dreaming of airplanes. Although he’d never been in one, “I was plane crazy,” Bolick said.
In November, 1942, he and three “gung-ho” friends zipped over to Charlotte and enlisted in the Army Air Corps.
“I was going to be an aerial gunner,” Bolick said.
The dream came true. After training, he shipped off to Norich, England, as a top turret gunner with the 44th Bomber Group, the famed “Rover Boys.”
He flew 25 regular day-time bombing missions and volunteered for six more. On the second outing, he ran into trouble.
The bomber’s target had been an underground fighter plane factory at the town of Friedrichshafen, near the Swiss border. It was a low altitude run – 12,000 feet instead of the usual 20,000 feet. Bolick’s plane had to make a second pass over the target after friendly B-17s got in the way.
German anti-aircraft gunners were ready and waiting. They scored a direct hit, and Bolick’s B-24 burst into flames. Getting out was complicated by the shrapnel wound in his foot.
Two exit doors were available, but one was shut tight and jammed. That’s the one Bolick was thrown against as the plane went into a tailspin. Another spin jerked him back and threw him out the open door.
It was his first parachute experience. He remembers seeing trees and mountains and snow. Above him, the B-24 exploded.
Bolick landed on his left leg – dazed and hurting. He knew a downed American airman wouldn’t get a key to the city.
Instead, a German who was a member of the home guard ran towards him waving a gun. A civilian man threatened Bolick with a pitchfork. A crowd gathered.
It was a tense and frightening moment. Then his protectors appeared – three young women who lived on a nearby farm. They loaded Bolick onto a horse-drawn sled and took him to their parents’ house, locking the doors against the hostile forces outside.
Bolick said they packed straw around his wound to control the bleeding.
“They all spoke English,” he said. “They told me ‘We’re Germans but we’re not Nazis.’ ’’
The Nazis arrived soon enough – SS officers who took Bolick to a hospital.
Fifteen months in prison camps followed. Bolick would endure skin-graft procedures performed with a straight razor and without anesthetic. He would be loaded like cattle into boxcars. He would go from 210 pounds to 135 pounds. It was a hard road. But he survived. And he might not have made it that far without the aid of the farm women.
Letter from the heart
More than 60 years after all this happened, Bolick got a call from Otmar Gotterbaum, who was writing a book about plane crashes in World War II. The author wanted to tap into Bolick’s memories. Bolick agreed and has a copy of the book – in German.
One thing led to another. His story has popped up in other books published in Germany.
Lieselotte Strick, who works in the bureau of culture in the Lake of Constance region of Germany, wrote Bolick about a person she’d interviewed who had witnessed the crash of Bolick’s bomber and watched the parachutes floating down. She sent a copy of the recollection.
Then Gotterbaum helped Bolick find the women who’d come to his rescue. All in their late 80s, they sent him a video wishing him the best.
Now, he’s writing them. It’s a heartfelt letter of appreciation with this notation: “Sorry it’s taken so long.”