With keen insight and enviable memory, local veteran Wilburn Rowden seamlessly recalls hardships more than seven decades past, which helped strengthen a love and devotion for his country. As a young man growing up during the early 1940s, Rowden came to realize that military service was an inevitability for most young men. Following his graduation from Vienna High School in 1941, he began working as a civilian at Fort Leonard Wood and the Vichy Memorial Airport.
However, an event soon unfolded that forever changed the direction of his life.
“On December 7 (1941), the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor,” he recalled. “Later the next year, I received notice from the draft board stating that I had been selected to serve in the military.”
He reported to Jefferson Barracks (located in south St. Louis) for his in-processing in January 1943, and was assigned to the U.S. Army Air Forces. From there, he was then sent to Miami Beach, Florida, to begin his basic training. Upon completion of his initial training, he went on to attend radio school at Scott Field, Illinois (which later became Scott Air Force Base). The next stop in his military journey was at Pendleton Field, Oregon, where he received assignment to the 392nd Bomb Group. The young airman soon began crew training on a B-17 Bomber.
His training continued with a couple of brief stateside assignments until he and his fellow trainees were advised of an approaching overseas deployment. In January 1944, Rowden and several thousand of his fellow service members traveled to England aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth (former luxury liner utilized as a troopship).
Assigned as a radio operator with the 731st Squadron of the 452nd Bomb Group, Rowden became part of a 10-man crew serving aboard a B-17 Bomber that had been affectionately named “Sleepy Time Gal.” He participated in several bombing missions concentrated on targets in France, Poland and Germany; however, his sixth and final mission proved to be the most intense of his brief aviation career.
On March 8, 1944, his squadron was destined for targets in the Berlin area. While en route, their escort of P-47 fighters had to leave the squadron in order to refuel in England. One of the crew members on Rowden’s B-17 Bomber noticed planes approaching believed to be P-51 Mustangs replacing the now-absent P-47s. Instead, they soon discovered, the aircraft were German Messerschmitt fighter planes.
The Germans attacked the American formation and knocked out two of the engines on Rowden’s plane. Catching fire, the plane began to quickly lose altitude. Short parachutes, the pilot made the decision to crash land the plane, but not before first giving the order for the rest of his crew to evacuate.
“The pilot crashed the plane in a swampy area and survived,” Rowden explained. “But the copilot and the bombardier did not survive.”
After parachuting to the ground, Rowden noticed that he was bleeding from his arms and legs—injuries that were the result of shrapnel from the German attack on his aircraft. He was soon captured by six Luftwaffe (German Army) soldiers and taken to a dispensary on a German airbase where he received rudimentary medical treatment for his injuries. Following interrogation at Dulagluff, Rowden was sent to a Stalagluft VI (German prison camp) in East Prussia.
“When we got to the camp, one of the prisoners yelled, ‘You ain’t gonna like it here,’” Rowden recalled. “Truer words were never spoken.”
During the next 13 months, the young American was held in two separate prison camps, survived near starvation and endured a 500-mile forced march over an 87-day period. His strength and stamina paid off whenhe and fellow captives were liberated by the 104th Division on April 26, 1945.
Rowden returned home in June 1945 and married his long-time girlfriend, Laura Helton, a few months later. The following November he was discharged from the service. In the years after his wartime duty, Rowden went on to join the Missouri National Guard and retired in 1983 with more than 38 years of service.
Remaining active in local veterans’ events and organizations, the proud recipient of an Air Medal and Purple Heart encourages the younger generations to study and take an interest in the country's history.
“They (the schools) don’t teach much about World War II history nowadays,” the former prisoner of war remarked. “Being able to speak to the kids about the camaraderie and teamwork that develops between soldiers in difficult and trying circumstances is important."
He added, “This really provides them with a historical perspective that they aren’t able to get from a history book.”
Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.