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From the Catawba Valley to Okinawa and Nagasaki: The experiences of two brothers

From the Catawba Valley to Okinawa and Nagasaki: The experiences of two brothers

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We often take for granted the service provided by the over 16 million military men and women who served our country during World War II. We forget that World War II was a do-or-die situation for the continuation of our way of life. Had America and their allies not been successful in defeating the Germans and Japanese, our world would have been significantly different. The freedoms we enjoy and sometimes abuse would not be available.

On Memorial Day, we recognize and honor those who gave service or their lives in defense of our freedoms. World War II veterans are dying quickly — according to US Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, we are losing 348 veterans per day and only 389,292 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were alive in 2019. This is a solemn reminder that their ranks will soon disappear.

This article is an attempt to remind readers of the sacrifices made by World War II veterans through the eyes of two brothers who resided in Catawba and Alexander counties and served in the Pacific Theatre during World War II. The oldest brother, James Bowman died at the age of 96 in September 2019. Harley Bowman, 93, lives near Springs Road in Hickory. In interviews and a story from 2015, the siblings gave insights into their experiences during the war that were both harrowing and heroic. Their service included service on ships being attacked and hit by kamikazes, wading to beaches from landing crafts, surviving typhoons, not sleeping in a bed for over two years, visiting Nagasaki weeks after the atomic blast, and providing transport to Chinese Nationalists who were fighting the communists.

James was drafted into the Army in January 1943 at the age of 19. He had never been beyond Asheville in the first years of his life. His saga began with training in Massachusetts and New York as a vertical gun pointer on a ship-mounted anti-aircraft gun. His travels continued to Pearl Harbor where he saw the devastation from the Pearl Harbor attack and where he received jungle training for future war action.

Harley volunteered for the Navy in October 1944 so he could choose his branch of service. His preparation for battle included training in Maryland and New York. He was trained on an APD fast transport which has been converted to support demolition teams. After training his ship traveled through the Panama Canal and left the United States from San Diego bound for Honolulu. He, too, saw the horrible mess created by the Pearl Harbor attack and was particularly moved by seeing the remains of the Battleship Arizona.

James made his first island landing during the battle for Guam. His troop ship disembarked his group of soldiers down a rope ladder to a landing craft some 300 feet from shore. When the landing craft hit the coral reefs, they were disembarked in water that at some places was over their heads. He spoke in somber terms about seeing the scores of soldiers’ bodies that were strewn along the beach. After staying on Guam for 3-4 weeks, he was transported to Leyte in October 1944. Again, he and his fellow soldiers made beach landings via rope ladders and landing craft. Once established onshore, he and his fellow anti-aircraft gun operators set up guns to shoot at Japanese zeros and mid-range Japanese bombers called “Old Betty Bombers.” He spent many sleepless nights firing his gun at incoming zeroes and bombers.

Harley left Hawaii in early 1945 and traveled through the Marshall Islands and Caroline Islands to a staging area for the invasion of mainland Japan. He related that he could see scores of allied ships amassed in every direction in the staging area. The staging area was near Okinawa. Interestingly, James and Harley were less than five miles apart during this term of service. They had no idea that they were so close together.

The battle for Okinawa was one of the bloodiest battles of the entire World War II. Japan lost over 77,000 soldiers and the allies had over 14,000 total deaths and a total of 65,000 casualties. Over 75,000 civilians were killed. Over 90% of the buildings on the island were destroyed. Many believe that the fierceness of the battle for Okinawa was a major factor in the use of the atomic bombs.

James was stationed on Ie Shema island which was some five miles from where Harley was serving on the Tatum. James was also assigned to a ship as an anti-aircraft gun operator. The area of Okinawa was not secure and was under constant attack by kamikaze pilots. Both brothers served on ships that served as picket lines circling the island. During this time, both James and Harley had their most harrowing and distressing experiences.

James related the difficulty of shooting the guns at the incoming kamikaze planes because of the rocking of the ship. Their obvious intent was to do the most harm possible. James said they usually came in groups of four in late afternoon with the setting sun. He indicated that on one occasion he vividly remembers that each of the first three zeros were hit by the combined anti-aircraft fire from the picket line. The fourth and final plane, an “old Betty Bomber” was headed directly for their ship. Under intense fire the bomber veered away from their ship and hit the deck of the ship next to them in line. The deck caught fire. The fire was brought under control, but James was witness to the sad sight of over 70 fellow Americans being buried at sea. Several of those were his personal friends. He relayed the sobering sounds of the bodies hitting the water from the flag-draped burial chute as a chaplain said a prayer as each soldier was dropped into the sea. James said that he “reckoned” only God kept him from being killed during this attack.

Harley had an even more dangerous situation in an attack from the kamikaze pilots. Again, the kamikaze attacks were in groups of four planes. On May 29, Harley was serving as an ammunition handler providing shells to those gunners defending his ship, The Tatum. The final kamikaze bomber was downed only 150 feet from the ship resulting in the release of a 550-pound bomb that hit the ship some 15 feet above water line and less than six feet under his work area. The bomb traveled through an officer’s cabin and lodged in a bulkhead wall. Luckily, the bomb did not go off. Harley indicated that his life was spared only by the grace of God. He said, “God must have had his hand on the firing pin.” Most members of the crew were evacuated to the opposite ends of the ship. The ammunition handlers, of which he was a part, were required to stay and continue to load the shells and tracers to the magazines for the guns situated immediately above the location of the 550-pound bomb. All of this was done in the dark. Several members of the crew were chosen to disarm the bomb and push it back through the cabin and back into the sea. To the relief of all aboard, the huge bomb splashed into the sea without exploding. Harley’s ship was sent back to the Philippines where it was repaired and put back in service as an escort ship.

James was sent back to Ie Shema Island where they were briefed about the upcoming invasion of mainland Japan. James boarded a transport ship and headed the 350 miles toward mainland Japan. They had been told about the atomic bombs and were traveling slowly. When surrender occurred, his ship returned to Ie Shema Island much to his relief. He was there for several months before being sent back toward the states. He witnessed the transfer of the emperor’s representatives to long-range planes as they traveled to Manila to develop the plans for the surrender. The results of this trip outlined the terms of surrender leading to V-J Day on September 2.

On August 19, 1945, two B-25Js of the 345th Bombardment Group and 80th Fighter Squadron P-38 Lightnings escorted two Japanese Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers. The Japanese aircraft carried a delegation from Tokyo in route to Manila to meet General MacArthur’s staff to work out details of the surrender.

The Betty bombers were painted white with green crosses on the wings, fuselage and vertical tail surface and use the call signs Bataan I and Bataan II. After the delegation landed at Ie Shima, they boarded a C-54 Skymaster and were flown to Manila. After the meeting, they returned to Ie Shima. One of the two Bettys crashed on its way back to Japan out of fuel, due to an incorrect conversion of liters to gallons when the bombers were refueled. The crew were helped by a local fisherman and returned to Tokyo by train.

Harley’s war experiences took an unexpected turn as his ship was chosen to escort a hospital ship to Nagasaki to assist with evacuation of allied prisoners. He arrived in Nagasaki some 2-3 weeks after the detonation of the atomic bomb. His crew members were given tours of the devastated areas where he saw the effects of the detonation including burned out frames of buildings. He also witnessed the work of the Japanese people as they began reclaiming the area. When he returned to his ship, battle stations were ordered at 1 a.m. because of the imminent arrival of a major typhoon. Winds of over 160 miles per hour resulted in the ship being dragged toward the piers of the Nagasaki Harbor. Several sailors were killed attempting to release the anchor chains. Fortunately, the ship escaped with only the loss of its anchor although it was close to capsizing on several occasions during the night. Harley’s service did not conclude with the ending of the war. His ship was sent to transfer Chinese nationalists to Manchuria as they fought the Chinese communists. He continued this service until 1946 when he returned to the west coast of the United States and ended his volunteer naval service on the east coast of the United States in 1947. James related that he remembers saying a prayer to God for sparing his life during his war service as his ship passed under the Golden Gate Bridge on Jan. 1, 1946.

When asked why they chose to serve their country during World War II, they said there was no choice. It was either help protect the United States or be under the rule of another country. They spoke of the hardship of war including the awfulness of seeing so many die and the harsh conditions of war service. James said he went for two years without sleeping in a bed during his service.

They also spoke of their concern for those who disrespect the flag and the disregard for the many service persons who gave their all to preserve our American way of life. We so easily forget the sacrifices made for those who came before us to give us our freedoms. They also emphasized that they were only two of millions of World War II veterans who in many cases made the ultimate sacrifice. Our best recognition of past service may be to educate the present generation of the sacrifices made by past generations without the expectation of rewards. As for James and Harley, no one could have asked more from two men raised in Alexander County who showed exceptional bravery in trying circumstances.

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