Editor's note: This article is the first in a two-part series highlighting the military experiences of Wilburn Rowden.
With more than three decades of military service to his credit, Wilburn Rowden possesses a treasure chest of military moments to reflect upon during his golden years. The most significant of these memories comes from World War II, when he was part of a bomber crew shot out of the skies of Europe by a renowned German flying ace, followed by months of deprivations suffered as a prisoner of war.
Growing up in a family of six children on a small farm near the community of Vienna, Rowden graduated from high school in the spring of 1941. He spent the next couple of years working construction jobs at Fort Leonard Wood and at the airport in Vichy.
"I received my notice for a pre- induction physical in early January 1943," the veteran recalled. "I was sent to Jefferson Barracks and inducted along with three of my former classmates from high school."
Receiving several inoculations, completing aptitude assessments and undergoing physicals, he was assigned to the U.S. Army Air Forces (previously known as the Army Air Corps). From there, he was sent to Miami Beach, Florida, for several weeks of basic training. The recruits were billeted in the Palmer House Hotel and often used the nearby beaches for drills and physical fitness formations.
With the occasional time off on weekends, he and several of his fellow trainees were able to visit special attractions in the area. These enjoyable moments, he soon discovered, evaporated when he arrived at his next duty location to embark upon an intense regimen of training to prepare for combat.
In March 1943, he was transferred to Scott Field (now Scott Air Force Base) in Illinois for training to become a radio operator in the Army Air Forces. For several weeks, he learned Morse code, maintenance and repair of radio equipment, in addition to working with specific types of radios he might use aboard aircraft.
"While I was at Scott Field, my girlfriend, Launa Helton, whom I met back in Vienna, was living and working in St. Louis," Rowden said. "I was often able to go and visit her on weekends when I was given a pass from military duties."
The next step in his preparatory training was a brief stop with the 19th Replacement Wing at Salt Lake City, Utah, before his transfer to Pendleton Field, Oregon, where he was assigned to the 392nd Bomb Group. It was during this time that he began his training as the radio operator aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress.
"We were assigned to air crews in Oregon, but our training there only lasted a short time," he recalled. "Our crew was soon sent to Moses Lake in Washington as part of the 452nd Bomb Group. Our training included some night flights and I remember once forgetting to rewind the trailing wire antenna for the radio, which resulted in some downed telephone lines when he landed."
In the coming months, they participated in advanced aviation training in Texas, practicing bailout procedures and conducting simulated combat missions. They transferred to Grand Island, Nebraska in December 1943, for additional training before moving on to Camp Shanks, New York, to board the Queen Elizabeth to sail to Europe.
"We landed at a port in northern Scotland on Jan. 8, 1944. We were trucked to our base in Deopham Green, England (Royal Air Force Station), and I soon learned how good the fish and chips were because this was about all I would get to eat," Rowden explained.
Their time was filled with training while the air crews also experienced their first air raid sirens that warned of incoming German "buzz bombs." The B-17 bomber they were assigned arrived in late January and the crew gave it the name "Sleep Time Gal," painting a picture of a lady in negligee on the nose of the aircraft.
On Feb. 6, 1944, less than a month after arriving overseas, Rowden joined his crew for their first combat mission. On the morning of a mission, he said, the crew would rise around 3-4 a.m., attempt to eat a quick breakfast, and then receive a briefing with information about their target.
On this first mission, they dropped bombs on a rocket launching platform in northern France, incurring six or seven holes in the fuselage of the plane from flak. In the next few weeks, Rowden participated in missions to bomb oil refineries and ball bearing factories.
They were given a mission to bomb Berlin on March 6, 1944, but were recalled due to cloud cover and overcast conditions in the target area. However, two days later, he participated in the final combat flight of his military career.
"Again, our target was Berlin, but we didn't make it there," he said. "In the vicinity of Hanover, Germany, ME-109 fighters hit us and damaged our aircraft."
Rowden in later years discovered the pilot credited with dealing the death blow to "Sleepy Time Gal" was famed German fighter ace, Capt. Heinz Knoke, who has been credited with 52 aerial victories, 19 of which were heavy bombers.
The attack resulted in damage to two of the aircraft's engines and a fire that destroyed two of the crew's parachutes. Rowden noted they carried only one spare parachute, so they were short a parachute if the plane had to be evacuated.
Quickly assessing their circumstances, the pilot made the bold decision to crash land the plane and ordered the rest of the crew to bail out.
"We were at approximately 30,000 feet, and I remember pulling my ripcord and felt the jolt that hit me when my parachute opened," Rowden recalled. "It was mayhem and very frightening to have to parachute to earth and then the possibility of facing the enemy upon landing in a strange country."
Jeremy P. mick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.