Raynal Cawthorne Bolling (1877–1918)

Raynal Cawthorne Bolling was a lawyer as well as a pioneering aviator who led a mission to Europe during World War I to determine how the United States should pursue wartime aircraft production.

Raynal Cawthorne Bolling was born in Hot Springs (Garland County) on September 1, 1877, the son of Sanford C. Bolling and Ada Lenora Hart Bolling. His father was a businessman, and the family apparently moved frequently, with census records showing Sanford Bolling working as a superintendent of an Illinois life insurance agency in 1900 and as a real estate salesman in New York in 1910.

The younger Bolling followed a more successful career path, graduating from Harvard University in 1900 and earning a degree from Harvard Law School in 1902. He married Ann Phillips of Boston, Massachusetts, on June 25, 1907, and they would have one son and four daughters. The Bollings moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, in 1909. Bolling joined U.S. Steel in 1903 and rose through the ranks to be the massive firm’s general solicitor by 1913.

As a lieutenant in the New York National Guard, Bolling took an interest in aviation and, in 1915, organized the First Aero Company—the first air National Guard unit ever formed. Promoted to captain as war loomed, Bolling served as a member of the Aircraft Production Board of the National Council of Defense. Once war was declared in April 1917, Bolling was made a major and sent to Europe to lead the Aeronautical Mission, which became known as the Bolling Mission. His task was to study the aircraft of the Allied nations and determine which should be produced in the United States and which should be purchased in Europe to supply planes for the fledgling U.S. Air Force.

Bolling departed for Europe on June 17, 1917, and experienced frustration in his dealings with the Allied aircraft manufacturer. In Great Britain, negotiations broke down when Rolls-Royce refused to consider selling engines without the payment of royalties—a situation that persisted despite appeals all the way to the prime minister. French airplane producers postponed delivery of sample aircraft until the U.S. government paid each of them $100,000. The Italian aircraft producers were more congenial, asking only for raw materials from the United States to aid them in aircraft production.

When Bolling delivered his report in 1917, he argued that the United States would serve the Allied cause best by supplying engines and parts, raw materials, and trainers rather than aircraft while retaining ultimate authority over the American aircraft program. In the end, the only American-built aircraft to see action in Europe was the de Havilland 4, a two-seat bomber.

General John Pershing recognized Bolling’s efforts by promoting him to colonel and putting him in charge of supplies for the air wing of the Allied Expeditionary Force (AEF). Frustrated by infighting and delays within the AEF bureaucracy, Bolling sought a combat command and was placed in charge of the aeronautical branch of the U.S. II Corps.

Bolling and his driver, Private Paul Holder, were on a scouting expedition on March 26, 1918, when they came under German machinegun fire. Bolling pulled his revolver in defense of Holder and was shot twice and killed. His remains were never found, and his name is on the Tablets of the Missing at the Somme American Cemetery and Memorial in France. He was the highest-ranking U.S. air service officer to die in the Great War.

Bolling posthumously received the U.S. Distinguished Service Medal and the French Légion d’Honneur and Croix de Guerre. Bolling Air Force Base, now Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington DC, was named for him. A statue of Bolling by sculptor Edward Clark Potter stands in Greenwich, and his name is carved on a stone wall in Harvard Memorial Church.

For additional information:
“Bolling Won Fame as Young Lawyer.” New York Times, April 16, 1918. Online at https://www.nytimes.com/1918/04/16/archives/bolling-won-fame-as-young-lawyer-only-41-the-missing-colonel-is-for.html?searchResultPosition=1 (accessed February 19, 2020).

“Col. Raynal Cawthorne Bolling.” Findagrave.com. https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=55822380 (accessed February 19, 2020).

Raynal Bolling Papers. Greenwich Historical Society, Greenwich, Connecticut.

Streckfuss, James. “Bolling Mission.” In The United States in the First World War: An Encyclopedia, edited by Anne Cipriano Venzon. New York: Garland Publishing Co., 1995.

Vander Meulen, Jacob. “Raynal Cawthorne Bolling (1877–1918).” In The United States in the First World War: An Encyclopedia, edited by Anne Cipriano Venzon. New York: Garland Publishing Co., 1995.

Mark K. Christ
Little Rock, Arkansas


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