99ºF

Air Force vet reunited with boy he saved in 1971

James Wally Leland saved Kevin Bonner from drowning in Philippines

SAN ANTONIO – Kevin Bonner's seventh birthday might have been his last had it not been for James Wally Leland, an Air Force pilot on a stopover that day in the Philippines in 1971.

Bonner said he had insisted on swimming in a pool for his birthday, but somehow found himself on the bottom of the pool drowning. Friends had tried to pull him out, but it wasn't until the pilot noticed the struggle and jumped in that their lives were forever linked.

Leland remembers pulling the boy out, clearing his airways, then performing a newly found skill he'd just been certified to give. 

"I immediately started giving CPR and then he started waking up," Leland recalled.

But that special moment as a hero was forgotten by the world traveler, then tucked away in an old newspaper clipping his wife would see some 40 years later. 

When Leland's daughter Candice Miller discovered it, she got on her computer to see if the little boy could be located. According to her, it was the easiest Google search ever.

"I said, ‘Look, the first one that comes up is Kevin Bonner in Garden Ridge. He's 50 years old,'" Miller said. 

In fact, that 7-year-old boy had grown up to be a long-haul trucker who went to her school at Churchill High School and lived just a mile and a half from her current home for 27 years. 

"That's just wild. You just don't expect something like that," Miller said.

After a phone call or two, Bonner and Leland made an appointment to meet, some 43 years after their first encounter. Bonner said he had thought about that day often and had wondered what happened to his rescuer in thePhilippines. After a handshake and hug, Bonner said the words he'd been waiting to say for decades.

"Thank you. Thank you, seriously. I never really got a chance that day to say anything to him," said Bonner.

As for Leland, he admits a bit of embarrassment that he had never talked of his heroic actions. 

"I've talked about so many other stories. Crash landing my plane in Vietnam, cruising at high altitudes in a glider, killing a bear in Alaska. This one just never came up," he said.