Family gathers for posthumous Flying Tiger award from China
By KIM BRIGGEMAN | Missoulian | Published: May 5, 2019
MISSOULA, Mont. -- (Trbune News Service) -- His service as an ace for the Flying Tigers in Burma and China buried by time, his Missoula ties long forgotten, Percy Bartelt received his due last weekend in North Dakota.
A third of a century after his death in 1986, Bartelt was awarded the Order of the Resplendent Banner, one of Taiwan's highest military awards, at a ceremony at the Fargo Air Museum.
"It was an impressive ceremony," Bartelt's son, Ed Bartelt, said Friday from his home in Helena. "They had the North Dakota governor there and a representative of the Chinese government. We enjoyed it. I think everybody did."
Taiwan Air Force Lt. Col. Tung Kao, an attache based in Washington, D.C., presented the medals to Ed Bartelt, his brother Rick and sister Sue Schechter, according to an account in Sunday's Fargo Forum by Gigi Wood and Emily Driscoll. The family also received a certificate of recognition.
Ozzie Groethe, a World War II aviation enthusiast in North Dakota, helped track down and flesh out Percy Bartelt's service credentials. He wrote a letter to the Taiwan government to set the award ceremony in motion.
Percy Bartelt was one of just 19 P-40 fighter plane pilots among the Flying Tigers to achieve ace status with five victories or more. He was credited with five, but his son said Friday he might have had more.
"Some of the stories say he actually shot down seven, but he gave the money for the other two to families of Flying Tiger pilots who were lost," Ed Bartelt said.
The First American Volunteer Group became known as the original Flying Tigers. The AVG was comprised of fighter pilots from the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps who were recruited before the U.S. entered the war, though they didn't see action until after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Tigers were needed by China to help fend off Japanese aerial assaults. Their aircraft wore Chinese colors but were under American control.
Percy Bartelt had spent more than three years as a Navy pilot on the USS Saratoga before he resigned his commission to join the AVG in the summer of 1941. He was discharged the following March. He'd left the Navy as an ensign, his son said, but when he rejoined it in September 1942 he was bumped up two ranks to a full lieutenant.
In the meantime, he came to Missoula to visit his wife Josephine and Ed, their 15-month-old son.
Josephine Power was a Minnesota girl whose parents, Albert and Mabel Power, moved to southeastern Montana during the early Depression years. She graduated from Colstrip High School and went to the University of Iowa, where she met and married Percy.
Meanwhile, the Powers' cattle ranch had gone broke and Josephine's parents moved to Missoula, Ed Bartelt said.
She and young Ed were living with them on East Pine Street when Percy returned from Burma, after what Ed Bartelt said was a harrowing return through India with another Tiger and future Medal of Honor winner, Gregory "Pappy" Boyington.
A Page 1 photo in the Missoulian on July 22, 1942, had the over line "Flying Tiger Visits in City." Percy stood alongside Josephine, clutching Ed in the crook of his arm and smiling down at him.
The following night, a Thursday, he was at Dornblaser Field for a "double Heroes Day" celebration to raise war bonds.
His companion on the platform was Ed Saylor, one of two Montanan aviators to take part in the famous Doolittle Raid over Tokyo earlier that year.
"If I can sell only one bond through my being here today, I'll feel that my day has been well spent," Saylor remarked to several thousand people gathered at the stadium at the base of Mount Jumbo.
They sold more than $11,000 in war stamps and bonds. Saylor, a soft-spoken man from Brusett in Garfield County, was inducted into the Flathead Indian tribe as the bonds were sold downtown. Eneas Granjo and Louis Combs, in full feathered headdress and regalia, christened him Oh-Kah-Wi -- Escapes the Bullets.
His father kept an even lower profile, said Ed Bartelt, who has an article from a similar Heroes Day in his father's hometown of Waseca, Minnesota. Percy told the reporter he wasn't a public speaker but he would answer questions "like I did in Missoula."
He became a Navy instructor until he was hospitalized with a lung infection for more than two years, leaving the service in 1951 with a disability retirement.
The marriage didn't last. Ed Bartelt said his parents were divorced after the war. Percy remarried and settled in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, retiring from the state of Minnesota in 1974.
Josephine stayed in Missoula and ran the Bartelt Convalescent Home at 416 E. Pine St. from 1949 until she retired in 1982. That's where Ed Bartelt grew up.
He dropped out of Missoula County High School in 1958 and joined the Marine Corps, rising to the rank of master sergeant. Bartelt served two tours and accumulated two Purple Hearts for wounds received in Vietnam near the Demilitarized Zone.
"One was a head wound, so that didn't hurt me any," Bartelt quipped. "Then I took some shrapnel and lost my spleen."
After retiring from the service in 1979, he and wife Donna lived in Missoula while Ed went to the University of Montana, earning a degree in communications in 1981. He became regional marketing manager for ITT in Denver and after 25 years retired to Las Vegas, where the Bartelts lived for 21 years. For the past couple of years they've been in Helena, where Donna is in a convalescent home and Ed, 78, volunteers for the Disabled American Veterans. They've been married 57 years.
Jennifer Bartelt lives with her father in Helena and accompanied him to Fargo last week.
"When my grandfather passed away in '86, my dad went to Detroit Lakes," she said. "He passed away the night he got there. That's when (Ed) met his younger brother Rick and a lot of the rest of the family. They started talking about the military and the Flying Tigers, and my dad and Rick ended up going to Texas and getting a lot of stuff from the museum there."
Siblings and cousins were all in Fargo last Saturday, "as good a bunch of the family as we could get there," Ed Bartelt said.
She'd never met some of them, Jennifer said. "This is what brought our whole family together, is the way I look at it."
The wife of one of Rick Bartelt's sons is the granddaughter of Ozzie Groethe, the aviation enthusiast. Spurred by Percy Bartelt's story, Groethe helped create a Flying Tigers exhibit at the Fargo museum.
Percy Bartelt "hasn't gotten the fame and attention that other pilots and heroes have gotten," Groethe said at the presentation.
Among other treasures, Groethe discovered magazine and newspaper articles proclaiming Bartelt's actions in Burma. Dubbed the "Tiger from Waseca," he was one of just 18 Flying Tiger pilots left behind to defend Rangoon against more than 100 bombers and fighters.
Bartelt "shot down three of the bombers in a very short time and helped scuttle the raid," Groethe wrote in a 2015 article.
Leland Stowe of the Chicago Daily News interviewed Bartelt shortly after his return in 1942 and came away impressed.
"You need not know that this quiet, unassuming young man who stands before you, better than six feet tall with keen gray eyes, is one of the famous Flying Tigers, just back from the hell of war in Burma and China," Stowe wrote. "He reflects the sureness of the man who has been around and done important things. In the past five months, he has packed a lifetime of experience, and he's going back for more."
"Those guys were all crazy," Ed Bartelt said of the Flying Tigers. "But they were dedicated, good pilots."
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