William Paul Rowe served his country in the U.S. Army for just over 20 years. He’s one of the rare — and extraordinary — Americans to have fought in three wars: World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Miraculously, Bill was never wounded in combat, despite being in perilous battlefield situations in each.
Last Saturday (Dec. 11), Bill celebrated his 94th birthday with fellow residents during a big bash at The Heritage, the senior community where he lives in Findlay, Ohio. He’s lived longer than any of his four siblings — and “not doing too bad for my age,” he says.
“Everybody here turned out,” Bill told me about the party two days later when we spoke by phone. “I like it here real well. They’re very nice to you. Anything they can do to make it easy for you.”
It was the first time I’ve talked to Bill in nine years, since we met in the summer of 2012 at a huge family gathering at the home of my birth family cousin Jeanne Rowe Arthur in Muncie, Indiana. I’ve been wanting to call him for years, but you know what John Lennon said about life happening while we’re busy making other plans.
Bill, I’m honored to say, is also my cousin. My maternal grandmother, Olive Helen Rowe, who died tragically at age 33 from complications after a hysterectomy in 1934, was his aunt and the mother of Betty — my biological mother who placed me for adoption in 1961 as a divorced, single mother of three about to turn 40.
After I found my three full siblings in 2005, my sister Terry and I did a heap of genealogy research, piecing together family history they’d known little about. Part of those findings included learning that our great-grandfather Uriah Rowe, who fought for over two years in the Civil War for West Virginia and the Union forces, had fathered more than 20 children with his three wives (the first two died). One of those kids was Bill Rowe’s father, Gordon, born in 1890.
Terry and I were lucky to meet Bill and his older brother Bob, along with cousin Jeanne, Bill’s granddaughter Michelle and other relatives at that reunion in 2012 in Muncie after Sis and I drove six hours from our hometown of Huntington, West Virginia, which we’d been visiting. That family get-together is a memory I’ll always cherish.
During my searches for other living birth family relatives, I’d found and spoken by phone to Jeanne — whose father Lloyd was our great-uncle — several months earlier, and she told me about Bill and Bob, after which I spoke to both of them by phone. Jeanne, who’ll be 90 in April, has memories of my mother Betty from her childhood visits to Huntington for Rowe family reunions, but Bill has only very vague memories of Betty.
Bill’s military heroism stands on its own merit, but his whole life story’s pretty remarkable.
Born in 1927 in Wheeling, West Virginia, he’s the youngest of Gordon and Rose Rowe’s five children. Tragedy befell the family twice when both parents died during Bill’s early childhood when they were living in Hicksville, Ohio. Gordon, who was working for the Ohio Valley Electric Railway Co., died of a heart ailment when Bill was only 5 in 1933. Rose, who had remarried, died in childbirth when Bill was 8 in 1936.
Sadly, their parents’ deaths split up the siblings. Bill’s sisters, Betty and Evelyn, went to live with cousin Jeanne’s family in Muncie. His brother Gordon, Bill told me, went to live with a friend of their mother’s who owned a hotel in Defiance, Ohio, where Gordon worked to earn his keep.
As for Bill and Bob, the youngest at 8 and 11, they were sent to live in a children’s home in Defiance. Bob left the orphanage when he graduated from high school. Bill lived there about nine years, then went to live in Muncie with sister Betty, who by that time was married, with her husband in the Army in Europe.
In January 1945, having just turned 17 a month earlier, Bill graduated from high school. He had friends who’d enlisted — and had lied about their ages, some even 16 — and knew he wanted to serve his country. So he told the draft board he was 18, enlisted in the Army and left the next day, a sturdy 5-foot-11 teen eager to join the wartime cause in June 1945.
Bill started in the Third Infantry Division (Medal of Honor winner Audie Murphy was a member of the famed unit’s ranks), and when the war ended later that year, he was with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. According to an interview he recorded with the Findlay Courier in late 2019, Bill arrived in the Philippines on Aug. 21, 1945.
The Japanese had surrendered six days earlier.
On his second night, Bill told the newspaper, he and another green soldier were on a patrol with some veterans and “ran into a hornet’s nest” of Japanese “diehards” who “decided to fight it out” despite the fact that the war was all but over. “That was my baptism by fire,” Bill said.
After the war officially ended Sept. 2, Bill wasn’t ready to leave. Although he had a girl back in the States — Marylou, whom he’d met during his time in Defiance and would eventually marry — he didn’t have a home to return to and felt the need to give more to his country.
With the U.S. occupation of Japan underway, Bill’s unit went to Tokyo, where Gen. Douglas MacArthur was stationed. A friend Bill had known back home had been selected as a member of MacArthur’s elite Honor Guard, which provided security for his headquarters and U.S. Embassy family residence. So Bill decided to apply and was chosen too, spending almost a year and a half with the unit, which boasted about 200 members at any given time.
According to his interview with The Courier, Bill remembers talking to MacArthur twice. The first, after Bill spent time playing with the general’s young son in the basement of the compound, he was sure he was in hot water when called for a meeting. But MacArthur only wanted to thank him — and told him from now on, he could order any food he wanted off the menu, prepared by the general’s personal cook.
After his stint in the Honor Guard, Bill rejoined the regular Army so he could stay in Tokyo. When MacArthur got wind of that, he called Bill in to ask why. When Bill — still not quite 19 — said he didn’t have a home to return to, had built some lasting friendships, had a rewarding job and wanted to stay, MacArthur told him he couldn’t do so as a sergeant, so he promoted him to tech sergeant. Can you imagine — getting a promotion from Gen. Douglas MacArthur himself?
“I didn’t have a home to go to when my time was up,” Bill told me, “but I guess you could say I found a home.”
He went on to add: “I say I found a home there, but little did I realize that there would be three wars I’d be involved in.”
After leaving Japan, Bill spent more than two years with a unit in Maryland that served as advisors to the Army National Guard. During that time, he and Marylou got married, had a daughter, Marylee, and a son, William (Billy).
Bill also went to “jump school” in 1949, learning he could earn extra money every time he parachuted. When he later became an officer, that meant even more money. He estimates he made around 140 jumps — including about 38 in one month — and still has a gimpy left knee to show for some “very rough landings.”
“I was afraid of heights,” he told me, “but before I made my first jump, I had an old sergeant who’d been jumping for years. He got me by the shoulder and he said, ‘Don’t look down.’ And I followed that rule, because after I’d had about eight or nine jumps under my belt, I got up to the door of the aircraft and looked down and I said, ‘God, that’s a long way down.’”
After that jump, Bill was able to look at the ground far below with no fear.
After the Korean conflict began in the early 1950s, Bill walked into the office one day to find his orders to head into battle. A master sergeant by then, he was assigned to an infantry unit.
Bill told The Courier that he remembers his platoon was making an attack on a hill and the unit commander was struck and wounded. Then a mortar shell injured the two lieutenants, leaving Bill as the senior soldier — although still an enlisted man — in charge of about 230. He notified headquarters about what had happened, and he and his men finished the attack.
The next morning, on May 26, 1953, Bill received a battlefield commission — a promotion to second lieutenant, making him an officer. The war ended two months later, on July 27.
After his war service in Korea, Bill and his family moved from base to base while he was stationed at Fort Benning, Ga.; Fort Bragg, N.C.; and Fort Knox, Ky. They also lived in Germany for four years.
In 1962, another set of orders landed on Bill’s desk — this time for him to serve as an adviser to South Vietnam’s army. In his mid-30s and embarking on his third war tour, he lived, ate and fought alongside the Vietnamese in the jungle about 90 miles from Saigon, not far from the Cambodian border. During those 14 long months, Bill learned to sleep with a loaded gun in his hand.
When he came back from Vietnam, Bill took another Army adviser job in his birthplace of Wheeling — West Virginia’s original capital — in the northern panhandle and the foothills of the Appalachians.
After over 20 years of Army service, Bill retired in August 1965 and moved his family to Findlay in northeastern Ohio, south of Toledo and not far from Lake Erie, where he’s lived ever since. He first worked for Whirlpool, then spent 21 years as a salesman covering five states for Johns Manville, a manufacturer of building and roofing insulation, commercial roofing and engineered products.
In September 1972, Bill and Marylou tragically lost son Billy at 21 in a car accident while a student at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, less than 30 minutes up I-75 from Findlay. He’d been in the Army and received his discharge in July 1971 — and, like his father, was a Vietnam veteran.
Marylee, Bill’s daughter, was a nurse like daughter Michelle before passing away at age 67 in February 2015. Bill’s beloved Marylou died nine months later at 87.
Bill, who’s a great-great-grandfather, told me he earned about 15 medals during his two-plus decades in the Army. In our 25-minute phone visit this week, I thanked him more than once for his service, which he’s never regretted.
“At my age, I could say this: If I had to do it again, I’d do it and not bat an eye,” he told The Courier in 2019. “I’d serve my country again.”
A nation thanks you, sir.