Sacrifice over the sea

Courtesy photograph

1932 Antelope Valley High School class picture of hometown hero Richard Rowell, second row third from the left.

The hometown boy … the beloved son of a mother and a father … the brother … the soldier of the sky and American citizen.

Veterans Day in our great land can mean many things to many people that have served or sent loved ones off to war, but the real honor bestowed must be reserved for those that never came home.

Many times over the years I’ve heard the statement from veterans, “I’m not the hero, but I served with some heroes — the ones that never came back.” Truer words were never spoken, and they sometimes make the freedoms we enjoy in this country sting just a little bit.

I know the story I’m about to tell very well and heard it many times living in the Antelope Valley, but it wasn’t until an old book found its way to me that the story of Richard M. Rowell really hit my heart and soul, and gave me that moment of emptiness that is so hard to reconcile.

Men of Valor, a book published during World War II, had pages and pages of aviators that had given their all and left it on the battlefields in the skies.

While flipping the pages and reading, a simple black and white photo of a sharply dressed ensign looked back at me, and the name Rowell gave me a moment of pause. The story under his photo gave me an insight into his sacrifice that I had never heard and one that speaks to the loneliness of his ultimate sacrifice, in the cockpit of a plane over a vast sea. The hometown boy from Lancaster was never coming home.

Grumman Wildcats from the USS Lexington.

Feb. 20, 1942, off of Rabaul, New Britain, Japanese Betty bombers were taking aim at the American fleet. The pilots on board the USS Lexington were taking to the air in their less-than-stellar Grumman Wildcats to turn back the attackers. Rowell was a member of VF-3 Squadron, led by future Medal of Honor and five victory ace recipient Butch O’Hare. Early in the day they took to the air and attacked incoming enemy aircraft, remaining on station until fuel became low. Landing, they refueled, re-armed and took to the air once again when the call went out that incoming bombers were again approaching. As 25-year-old Rowell left the carrier deck and hand-cranked his landing gear up, little did he know his service to our country was about to become a lifelong commitment.

Rowell engaged a twin-engine bomber and, driving home a continuous attack, brought the bomber down and then pressed on to a new target. The lack of fighter escort by the enemy had our Navy airmen roaming the skies, seeking targets independently. After the downing of a few more bombers by others in the squadron, VF-3 made its way back to the Lexington, led by Butch O’Hare and his wingman. Returning to the flight deck after this epic fight, they counted up their losses. Rowell was not among them when they returned. Accounts stated by some of his squadron mates were that Rowell was seen pressing home an attack on another bomber, and was never seen or heard from again.

The boy who walked the streets of Lancaster with his brothers to school; the young man who, along with his brothers, hand-built an adobe house for their mother; the son of the high school principal who died when he was a young man, faced eternity alone, as the plane riddled with battle damage made its final plunge into the Coral Sea. His last moments we can only imagine. Today the wreckage still rests where so many decades ago, the airman and his plane settled into soft sand at the bottom of the sea. That became the permanent resting spot for a hometown boy who gave us, his community and his nation the most precious gift that he could have given us: his life.

The USS Rowell.

On Nov. 17 1943, Agnes Rowell stood on a platform in Houston, Texas, with a bottle of champagne in her hand, surrounded by military officials, the press and well-wishers. Thinking back to the day she gave birth and first held the baby she named Richard, little did she know that the journey her son was to embark upon in life would have her speaking the words, “I now christen you the USS Rowell.” And with the breaking of the bottle on the bow, the spirit of her young son, whose body rested at the bottom of the sea so far away, slipped into the waters as a United States destroyer. A grateful nation remembered our hometown boy, but a nation can never replace the warmth, love and embrace between a mother and her son. This is the sacrifice we must always remember and we must dedicate ourselves to living our lives in a way to be worthy of such an unselfish act, each and every day.

This Veterans Day, make the remembrance the beginning of an everyday prayer for those who never came home and for those who were left behind with an empty spot in their hearts.

Until next time, Bob out …