Vienna World War II veteran celebrates 100th birthday

By Colin Willard, Staff Writer
Posted 4/26/23

VIENNA — World War II veteran and Vienna native Wilburn Rowden celebrated his 100th birthday on April 24. In 1943, he joined the United States Army. During a mission as a radio operator with …

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Vienna World War II veteran celebrates 100th birthday


VIENNA — World War II veteran and Vienna native Wilburn Rowden celebrated his 100th birthday on April 24. In 1943, he joined the United States Army. During a mission as a radio operator with the Army Air Corps the following year, he sustained combat injuries and the German force captured him as a POW. He spent 14 months as a POW before liberation shortly before Germany surrendered.

Upon returning home, Rowden entered trade school and later joined the Missouri National Guard as a communications repair technician. He moved to Jefferson City in 1951, and he still lives in the area today in an apartment in an independent living community.

Rowden celebrated his birthday with a special lunch at the community where he lives.

“Turning 100, I feel the same as I did on my 50th birthday,” he said. When asked about the secret to a long life, he said to “enjoy every day and keep moving.”

“He’s quite the pistol,” his daughter Sarah Miller said. “He’s feisty. He walks one to two miles each day, something he’s done for decades.”

For his service in World War II, Rowden received a Purple Heart, awarded to those wounded or killed while serving, and an Air Medal, awarded for single acts of heroism or meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight. A monument at Hawthorne Memorial Gardens in Jefferson City honors him.

In 2022, he was an inaugural inductee into the Missouri National Guard Hall of Fame. Also that year, photographer Jeffrey Rease included Rowden in his project “World War II Portraits of Honor,” which includes photographing and sharing the stories of World War II veterans. For the photo, Rowden wore his dress uniform.

“I hadn’t seen him in that uniform since 1983,” Miller said. “When he put that uniform on, and this photographer took his picture, it brought tears to my eyes. I’ve never seen such a fabulous portrait of him ever in my life.”

In 1999, Rowden wrote a short memoir called “World War II, As I Remember It,” that documented some of his experiences during his service. The quotes from Rowden below come from his memoir.

Rowden graduated from Vienna High School in June 1941, only months before the attack on Pearl Harbor that would lead the United States into the war. Over the next year and a half, he worked a jobs in the area, including on the construction of the hangar at the airport in Vichy, the Army used during the war.

Once the calendar flipped to 1943, Rowden’s involvement in the war became much more direct. On Jan. 7 of, he received his notice to report to Jefferson Barracks for a pre-introduction physical for the military. He reported on Jan. 15 with only one week of preparation. Later in the month, he went to Miami Beach, Florida for basic training.

Rowden’s training took him all around the country. After Florida, he traveled to Illinois, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Texas and Nebraska. He recalled the food he ate while training in Moses Lake, Washington with the 452nd Bomb Group.

“Many of the evening meals at the mess halls consisted of lots of mutton,” he wrote. “Now, in my opinion, mutton is not the best even when prepared skillfully, and can you imagine mutton cooked in large quantities in a GI mess hall? Result: I was airsick quite a lot and often wondered when I threw up out the window of the airplane who got ‘bombed’ below.”

Two days after Christmas 1943, Rowden and his crew arrived in Camp Shanks, New York. Camp Shanks was their point of embarkation, and from there, in 1944, they boarded the ship Queen Elizabeth, which held a British crew, U.S. Marines and several thousand airmen.

“There were so many personnel on board; we had to alternate on deck and in the berth,” he wrote. “To while away the time while on deck, we played cards and even threw some dice. Some of the people spent most of their time on the rail, as they were sick.”

On Jan. 8, 1944, the ship landed at a port in northern Scotland. From there, Rowden traveled by train and truck to the base at Deopham Green, England.

“The most striking difference I noticed about England was the cold, damp weather and mud,” he wrote. “Of course, the proper English that the English people used was also noticeable. I never did get accustomed to the tea and crumpet breaks, but I enjoyed the fish and chips. During this period, we had a lull in training and some of us would catch a truck into town and try some of their mild and bitter beer.”

In late January 1944, Rowden and his crew received their plane, which they named Sleepy Time Gal. By Feb. 6, the Gal was ready for her first mission.

Over the course of seven hours, the crew of Sleepy Time Gal flew to Calais in northern France to bomb a rocket launching platform before returning to England. The plane returned with six or seven holes.

“The flak was heavy and accurate,” Rowden wrote. “Now, we’d had our baptism of fire.”

Sleepy Time Gal‘s crew flew a few more missions before a fateful trip on March 8, 1944. The target was Berlin, or as Rowden referred to it, “Big B.” Sleepy Time Gal never made it there. While flying near Hanover, Germany, German ME-109 fighters hit and damaged the plane. First, they damaged the second engine and set the plane on fire. Another hit knocked out the third engine.

“We were losing altitude and our pilot gave us orders to bail out,” Rowden wrote. “The alarm bell was sounded, which was our signal to abandon ship. I heard the navigator come on the intercom and inform the pilot that the fire had destroyed his and the bombardier’s parachutes. Since we carried only one spare chute, we were one short.”

The pilot, Lt. Theodore MacDonald from Rochester, New York, told the navigator to take his parachute from the cockpit and have the bombardier take the spare. Then, he told the crew members to bail.

“There was so much excitement at this time as we all prepared to hit the silk,” Rowden wrote. “We were at approximately 30,000 feet. Our tail gunner had to be pushed out as he was injured and passed out due to lack of oxygen, so some of our crew pulled the handle to his parachute and pushed him out.

“I remember my confusion and fright at having to parachute to Earth and then face the possibility of (the) enemy upon landing in a strange country,” he continued. “I remember pulling my ripcord and feeling the jolt when my parachute opened. As I was floating down toward Earth, I remember assessing my plight and realizing I still had my ripcord handle in one hand and my GI shoes in the other. I recall thinking ‘I don’t need this handle,’ so I tossed it away. I counted 10 parachutes, so I knew more than one plane was down. A German fighter buzzed me on the way down, and I could see a pilot looking at me. I thought he may get me in his slipstream and spill my parachute, but he didn’t. I remember thinking if I had my .45-caliber pistol, I might have shot at him. I felt helpless. He was probably relaying my position to ground by radio. I felt a stinging sensation in my arms and legs as I neared the ground.”

Rowden landed in a small clearing near a field. His parachute caught in the top of a tree, but the tree was small enough that it bent to his weight and allowed him to get down.

“First, I attempted to get my parachute out of the tree to hide it,” he wrote. “It was then that I discovered that I had been hit in my arms and legs, hence the stinging, and I noticed blood coming through my clothing. During this dilemma, combined with my fright and pain when I moved my arms and legs, I noticed some German Air soldiers moving in on me.”

Rowden followed instructions he from training and waited on a tree stump rather than try to evade the Germans. Using gestures, the soldiers directed him to stand and walk.

“I tried to make them understand that I was wounded and could not walk but to no avail,” he wrote. “I then stood up and started to walk, but (I) fell to the ground. After some more talking, shouting and gesturing, they rolled me onto my parachute and six of them carried me to a bus.”

The enemy soldiers soon filled the bus with other airmen who had jumped from their planes. One of them was the tail gunner from Rowden’s crew, who had suffered an injury and bled through a bandage on his hand.

The bus took the captured men to a German base, where a doctor tended to Rowden’s wounds. His next stop was a hospital in Hanover where he bunked with six or eight other injured airmen. While there, a captured Russian soldier took care of Rowden, who was unable to move his arms or legs.

“I couldn’t understand Russian, nor he English, and it seemed to me that each time I opened my mouth, he would cram black bread or gruel into my mouth,” he wrote. “That was my introduction to German black bread and food. I thought it was pretty awful, but hunger soon adapts to unpleasant tastes.”

After a couple of days, the Germans moved Rowden to a hospital in Frankfurt. While in transport at the Hanover railroad depot, he reunited with some of his crew members. They told him that no one had heard from the copilot, Lt. John Godsey from Richmond, Virginia, nor the bombardier, John Harris from Salmon, Idaho. The crew would later learn that civilians had killed the airmen. During this reunion, Rowden learned that Lt. MacDonald survived the plane crash.

That was the last time Rowden saw his crew while in Germany. He went to a Dulag Luft, an interrogation center where prisoners went before assignment to a POW camp. Then, they sent him to Stalag Luft #6 in what is now Lithuania.

“As we moved into the POW compound, I remember some of the POWs who were already there lined up inside the fence shouting ‘You ain’t gonna like it here,’” Rowden wrote. “I remember dreading to pass through the gate and seeing it close behind me. I remember the guards in the towers with their weapons always in sight of us. (There were) also guards inside the POW compound who at night, after we were locked in our barracks, were patrolling the area with large, black guard dogs.”

The camps had poor living conditions. Between nine and 12 prisoners shared a room. They got to shower once each week. Rowden suspected wood shavings made up the mattresses.

“Our time was spent walking around the compound perimeter, watching and making fun of the guards in the towers, playing cards and reading a few ragged-edged books the Red Cross had provided and wondering how much longer we would remain POWs,” he wrote.

The food was not much better. Prisoners received one hot meal a day, and it was often potatoes, kohlrabi or cabbage with an occasional sample of meat. Other rations were mostly dark bread. Sometimes, they would receive parcels from the American Red Cross that included food, clothing and cigarettes.

“Since my buddy and I didn’t smoke, we used our cigarettes to barter for other items we needed like food and clothing,” Rowden wrote. “I traded for a logbook in which I made some daily entries and I still have today. Without these food parcels, we really would have been much hungrier.”

The POWs occupied themselves by using the few materials they had to learn or entertain themselves.

“I remember the course in the German language and the Bible were the two most popular,” Rowden wrote. “A Canadian chaplain conducted church services. We played games and even arranged for a minor celebration on July 4, much to the bewilderment of the English POWs in our compound.”

As 1944 progressed, the prisoners could sense there was trouble for the German forces. That July, the Russian invasion resulted in the prisoners moving to Stalag Luft #4 in Poland. During transport, some sailors that Rowden described as “very young, tough and energetic” supervised the POW during the move. Rowden received a bayonet wound in his right calf as the sailors forced him and the other prisoners to move at double time for several miles to the new   compound. Civilians spit, shouted insults and threw things at the prisoners.

“It was a relief to get into the POW compound and away from these guards and people,” Rowden wrote.

Life at Stalag Luft #4 was similar to the previous POW compound except the rooms were a little bigger. Rowden was there from July 18, 1944, to Feb. 6, 1945. Cigarette trading continued, but this time it got the men a radio that they concealed from the guards. They listened to the BBC for updates about the war.

On Feb. 6, 1945, the Germans evacuated Stalag Luft #4, and the approximately 8,000 prisoners began an 86-day death march. They left with parcels from the Red Cross, but they quickly ate the spare food. Guards only provided one hot meal each day, and it was usually a weak soup or stew made from scraps.

“We began to rely on scrounging along the way,” Rowden wrote. “At one stop, we had a GI watch that belonged to some of our people that I traded for sausage and bread.

“The potato bins and other food sources along the route suffered, some heavily,” he continued. “In fact, I had awaited my turn to steal potatoes from the farmers’ bins. Chickens, eggs and rabbits were also pilfered.”

Rowden did not recall showering during the whole trip except for a brief stop at another POW camp along the way. He wore the same pair of pants the entire trek.

“We were grubby,” he wrote. “In fact, we were lousy. The lice we had on our bodies and clothing were really big. At one place during our stopover at Stalag Luft IIA, I hung out my blankets in the sun and when the lice would warm up and start crawling, I would pick them off and kill them.”

Despite the dire situation, the POWs maintained their camaraderie.

“We survived and helped each other,” Rowden wrote. “If you wanted a haircut, someone would help out. We utilized the buddy system a lot.”

On April 26, 1945, the POWs marched through the line and the guards turned them over to the American 104th Division. They were liberated.

“I remember some Canadian soldiers approached one of our guards and reached out and took his gun,” Rowden wrote. “It was then that I knew for sure this was the real thing. The first American soldier we saw was greeted, hugged, kissed and hand-shaken until his arm and shoulder hurt. What a happy day.”

The following day, the freed prisoners went to an abandoned airfield in Halle, Germany, where they deloused and cleaned up. They had lost so much weight in captivity that their clothes did not fit and their stomachs had shrunk to the point that many could not handle the rich food and they got sick.

While in Halle, Rowden met a 104th Infantry Division soldier who had a roll of film from the Dachau concentration camp when American troops liberated it. He persuaded the soldier to send him with the film, which he would have developed and send copies to the soldier. Rowden included some of the photos in his memoir.

“The film really revealed the atrocities carried out against the people in this prison,” he wrote.

Also in Halle, Rowden developed pain in his right calf. After the medics sent him to the 96th evacuation hospital, Rowden learned the source of the pain was a shell fragment from the day he was shot.

“The long walk we had may have contributed to this,” he wrote. “Other fragments I received at the same time as this one, I am still carrying in my body.”

During the first week of May, Rowden arrived at Camp Lucky Strike, a debarking station in Nancy, France, for troops going back to the U.S.

“At this station, there was a public address system over which announcements were made and the various bugle calls played for Reveille, work call, lights out, etc.,” he wrote. “Apparently, they had only one record: ‘Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are’ by Frank Sinatra. I never got so tired of a song in my life. I proclaimed that if I ever found a copy of this record, I would break it into a million pieces.”

On June 12, 1945, Rowden boarded the small transport ship Admiral Bunter and began the voyage home. About a week later, he reached Norfolk, Virginia.

“As we debarked, I remember the crowd waving and shouting and a military band playing as we pulled into the harbor,” he wrote. “Of course, all of us were craning our necks to see if someone we knew was greeting our arrival. In fact, we crowded to one side of the ship until it began to list to that side.”

Within 24 hours of returning to the U.S., Rowden had a train ticket back to Jefferson Barracks where his military journey began. He received about $2,000 as his pay while he was  a POW.

“Boy, I was walking on tall cotton with a bus ticket to Vienna,” he wrote.

Many members of Rowden’s family greeted him when he arrived home. His father prepared a country-cured ham for Sunday dinner to mark the occasion.

“I don’t know why, but several of the people who came to see me remarked ‘He don’t look much different than before he left,’” Rowden wrote.

Rowden married his girlfriend Launa Helton in September 1945 during his recuperation leave from the Army. That fall, he traveled to San Antonio, Texas, and received his discharge. Following the discharge, he and his wife moved to St. Louis where he entered trade school for additional training in communications and electronics. Once he graduated, he took the job with the Missouri National Guard.

“For an adventure that began with my induction into the Army on Jan. 7, 1943, and ended on Nov. 3, 1945, I, a backwoods country boy, saw a lot of the country and had obtained a great deal of experience,” he wrote. “Looking back, I can say that I am proud to have served my country.”