“Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.” ~ General Douglas MacArthur’s speech before the joint session of Congress on April 19, 1951
My Uncle, Robert M. Stowers, Col, USMC (Ret.), Marine Corps Serial Number (MCSN): 0-47681, just such an old soldier; hopefully this testament will attempt to slow some of the fade.
My Uncle Bob would have been 91 years old this week. But old age in 2005 finally did what two wars and 33 years of military service couldn’t….. One of the most prominent figures and role models in my life, it’s high time I pay tribute to this man, my Uncle, the fighter pilot, a prototypical Marine, an officer and gentlemen, and give him the respect – and affection – that he so richly deserves.
One of my earliest memories of childhood, sometime in the very early 1970s, involved airplanes, and I believe to this day was an experience that set me on the path which I followed for the next 35 or so years. My Uncle Bob, then a full-bird Colonel in the United States Marine Corps, flew into Coast Guard Station Miami (Opa Locka airport), in what I believe was a T-28 Trojan, the manly radially-powered basic flight trainer of the time for the Navy-Marine Corps team.
The first thing I can tell you about that day was the way my Uncle was met, treated, and respected by those around him. It was evident, to even a small child, that this was a man of some import, someone who’s confident presence seemed to seep from his very pores. My brother Boyd adds that we found ourselves in a restricted area of the base, walking around the flight line ramp looking at the aircraft parked there. Security rushed up at one point to chase us away (or worse), but when they found out we were waiting for Colonel Stowers, we ended up being treated like VIPs! In the end, there was ground crew waiting, a car and driver, and salutes all around.
The second thing, and really the last thing I recall of that day, was of being placed into the seat of the cockpit, where I was much too small to even think of seeing over the instrument panel. Seeing the orderly array of “steam gauges,” along with the plethora of switches and levers was enough to awe-inspire a young boy, already inspired by the then vibrant space program in our country. But then I’m pretty sure my Uncle reached over and turned on the aircraft’s power (battery). Immediately the aircraft was possessed with life, with lights flashing on, while some instruments started their slow precession to operation with hums, hisses and whirls. I distinctly remember Colonel Stowers hitting the annunciator “press-to-test,” a button that causes all the warning lights in the cockpit to come on for pre-flight checks….
This event, probably something my Uncle thought would entertain a young boy for a few moments, has had a lasting impact on my entire life. It would be a little facetious to claim that as such a small child I decided right then, right there to fly combat aircraft in the military. But I am going to claim away!
I was even more surrounded by aviation. My oldest sister Jan married a Vietnam War vet who came home in 1970 after two years of intense combat in-country, as good as I can remember it. Harvey was a door gunner in the Navy’s newly established gunship attack helicopters (HAL-3, Helicopter Attack Light) flying Hueys (actually the UH-1 Iroquois) tasked with supporting from forward operating bases various Special Forces. Another more direct linkage to flying was through my brother, 8 or 9 years older than I am depending on what time of year you consider. Boyd was dead-set intent on becoming a pilot, and was flying when I was in grade school, which means I was flying in grade school! Needless to say I go pretty good flying IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) since I couldn’t even see over the dash at the time.
But it all traces back to my Uncle. So, who was this man, and how did he continue to shape my life as I grew, matured, and attempted to follow in many of his footsteps?
Robert M. Stowers was born on October 16, 1925, in California, and enlisted as soon as he (legally) could in the Volunteer Naval Reserve V-5 Naval Aviation Cadet (NAVCAD) program in 1943 right smack dab in the middle of World War II. This program was a way to quickly generate many more aviators for the fleet, far more than the Academy and ROTC could provide at the time, in a crash attempt to meet the demands of world war. Bachelor’s degrees were waived, but cadets were required to complete one within six years to keep their commission. Basic service and flight training generally lasted 18 months, where candidates had to agree to not marry and serve for at least three years on active duty. In comparison, today’s obligations for military pilots can range up to 12 years (from wings), but then again, we can marry anytime we want…although we are still highly discourage during flight training and don’t expect any leave for a honeymoon!
Following some college, he went to US Navy Flight Preparation School at Cal Poly starting in June 1944, then to St. Mary’s College Pre-Flight program (California), and finally to Navy Primary Flight Training at Naval Air Station (NAS) Glenview, located in the suburbs of then Chicago. I can only imagine the aircraft he had the pleasure to fly; most likely the N2S “Yellow Peril” (a militarized Boeing Stearman), and quite possibly the SNJ (navalized T-6 Texan). He completed flight training at NAS Corpus Christi (Texas), then the largest naval aviation training facility in the world most likely flying the T-28 Trojan, and reported directly to the US Marine Corps Officer Candidate Class. After completion, he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant, United States Marine Corps, on March 20, 1946.
There’s a pretty interesting and somewhat unlikely intersection here concerning my Uncle’s flight training. From 2008-2011, I worked for the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation, the economic engine supporting the Navy’s National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida. I happened to be talking to one of the people that work on archiving material in the museum’s warehouse, and mentioned that my Uncle had gone through flight training back in the 1940s. He asked for Bob’s full name, and approximately what year he would have gone through, and noted that the museum had literally tons of historical paper documents stored away. He would see if he could find my Uncle’s records. A few days later, I returned to my office at the Foundation, and sitting there atop my desk, were a set of old, discolored yet official-looking folders. Upon examination, indeed my Uncles flight training records had been retrieved, now in my hands. These records are not with me as I write this from Okinawa, Japan, so regrettably I can’t quote. But, I will tell a secret: my Uncle actually didn’t do so well as a flight student! He made up for it in combat, though, as one shall see.
After F-4U Corsair operational training at NAS Miami, now Opa Locka airport, and Carrier Qualification training at NAS Pensacola, Florida, on either the USS Ranger (CV-4) or the USS Saipan (CVL-48), or perhaps both, he was assigned to 2nd MAW (Marine Air Wing) at MCAS (Marine Corps Air Station) Cherry Point (North Carolina). The Corsair was still a preeminent front-line fighter of the time, powerful and heavily-armed, and carrier-capable, as rudimentary jet-engined aircraft were only just starting to be produced in 1945-1946. He served a truncated tour with “The Flying Deuces” of Marine Fighting Squadron 222 (VMF-222) flying Corsairs, but as part of the massive reduction in force in the post-World War II years, he was assigned to the reserves starting in August 1947, where he continued to fly Corsairs at NAS Los Alamitos, California.
Somewhere in there, at least the story goes to my recollection, my Uncle Bob met his wife-to-be, my Aunt Gloria, my Mother’s sister, during flight operations. She worked in the office where the pilots logged in at arrival on NAS Pensacola. She saw the young and handsome First Lieutenant Stowers and whispered to her girlfriend co-worker that she was going to marry that guy. It was a long distance relationship though for three years since he was stationed in California. It turns out that Gloria’s premonition came true, but not without a little prodding. On one of his trips across the country, an exasperated Gloria put out a friendly ultimatum: don’t come back unless you’re going to marry me! He flew back to California, called back and asked, “Can you get a wedding ready in a few weeks?” “You better believe it!” was her excited response. And she did. They married in 1955 at NAS Pensacola in the base chapel that is still there today.
However, a nasty little policing action, better characterized as the Korean War, intervened. Bob was recalled to active duty in August 1950 as a result of that conflict, and after refresher training and duty at MCAS El Toro (California), he was posted in June 1951 to Korea.
There he flew with the “Checkerboards” of VMF-312, still flying the venerable piston-powered Corsair, where his unit became the first such engined squadron to shoot down an opposing jet aircraft, a North Korean MIG-15, no doubt supplied and even piloted by the Russians. Bob also served afloat with the “Devil Cats” of VMF-212 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Rendova (CVE-114), experiences of which he would write to me about during my first flying assignment afloat in 1991.
Rendova, having been deactivated after WWII, was recommissioned in early 1951 in support of the Korean War effort. Rendova was an escort carrier of the Commencement Bay-class, displacing 10,900 tons and over 550 feet long, and with a complement of 1,066 Officers and Enlisted, about 1/9th the displacement of today’s supercarriers, with half the length and about 1/5th the personnel. In another odd Far East Fling intersection, the ship and her air wing conducted their final training at Okinawa, where I currently reside. As fantastic as it might seem, she launched her first Close Air Support (CAS) sortie on September 26th, just 4 days after embarking and qualifying the marines of VMF-212! During the next months she cruised off the west coast of Korea, where the ship and air wing together recorded 1,743 sorties in support of the war. This time period includes a couple of battles with which many may be familiar: Heartbreak Ridge and Port Chop Hill. Rendova completed her last Korea War support operation 6 December 1951.
Uncle Bob ended his service in Korea with the famous “Black Sheep” of VMF-214, which had traded in their Corsairs for F9F Panther jets, probably the first jet aircraft my Uncle flew. The “Black Sheep” became famous in the Pacific during WWII, led by rouge and unconventional Marine Major Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, for inflicting serious damage against what many would say were superior Japanese forces. In fact, a short-run TV series about their exploits was produced from 1976-1978 called Baa Baa Black Sheep, which I watched without fail. At an airshow I attended with my Uncle in the 1980s I had the pleasure of meeting “Pappy” Boyington, a man my Uncle knew personally, just before Pappy died from cancer. In one of the larger displays in his home, my Uncle Bob proudly displayed his over-sized VMF-214 patch, along with a silk scarf adorned with its image.
1st LT Stowers was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his actions during the Korean War. His citation reads:
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Flying Cross to First Lieutenant Robert M. Stowers (MCSN: 0-47681), United States Marine Corps, for heroism while participating in aerial flight as Pilot of a Fighter Aircraft against the enemy on 3 September 1951. First Lieutenant Stowers as a member in a three-plane flight flew through adverse weather until contact was made with an airborne controller, who directed the flight to two bivouac areas. In spite of extremely low visibility, dangerous terrain and in the face of intense automatic weapons fire, First Lieutenant Stowers made a series of coordinated attacks with napalm, rockets and strafing until all his ammunition was expended and four hundred enemy casualties inflicted. First Lieutenant Stowers’ aggressive leadership and fearless devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
He received a second award for the same medal, and although the full citation cannot be found, the synopsis reads:
First Lieutenant Robert M. Stowers (MCSN: 0-47681), United States Marine Corps, was awarded a Gold Star in lieu of a Second Award of the Distinguished Flying Cross for extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight while serving with a Marine Fighter Squadron, in action against enemy aggressor forces in Korea.
Following his combat tours in Korea, he served at NAS Pensacola as an LSO (Landing Signal Officer) Carrier Qualification instructor (I remember the worn set of vintage “paddles” he displayed in his home!). He returned to El Toro assigned to the “Death Rattlers” of VMA-323, fling the F9F Panther and then the F9F Cougar, a swept wing version of the Panther. Bob was later reassigned to 1st ANGLICO (Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company) in Hawaii.
His subsequent duty with the “Warlords” of VMF-451 at Atsugi, Japan, involved flying the FJ-4 Fury and both the day F8U-2 version and night/all-weather F8U-2N versions of the Crusader. In the early 1960s, he was assigned again to the newly re-designated MCAS Opa Locka, this time with the “Fighting Shamrocks” of VMF-333, still flying the Crusader but transitioning airframes there to the F-4 Phantom II.
I remember talking to him about this time flying in the military. He recalled that it seemed like they were getting a new airframe every year, and within each year, significant upgrades or even highly modified versions to the ones they already had. This was before the Navy decided to standardize aircraft operations, and 2-seat trainer versions were seldom available or even built. He said they literally would get a brief, read what he called a “pamphlet” on the new aircraft, and then simply “kick the tires and light the fires!” I can only imagine how steep their learning curves were in the 1950s and 60s, a culture of flying so different that what I was experiencing in the highly regimented, more modern Navy Aviation. In his home in Hollywood after retirement were displayed a large series of aircraft models, reflecting the wide array of aircraft he had the pleasure of flying. I can recall only the following, although I am for sure omitting some if not many: the F-4U Corsair, F9F Panther and Cougar, FJ-4 Fury, F-8 Crusader, A-4 Skyhawk, and the venerable F-4 Phantom.
He also claimed that his serious hear loss was due to operating with canopies open during takeoff and landings, especially from the aircraft carriers, prior to ejection seats, giving the pilots some chance of escape during cold cats or crashes on landing…WOW. Becoming a part-owner in a local charter business, Bob and my brother would often fly to the Bahamas. At the time Uncle Bob was very hard of hearing, and since headsets (with individual volume controls) were still somewhat rare, he would turn the volume on the radio almost all the way up. But when he wasn’t looking, Boyd would turn the radios back down, and so the flights went, playing tug-of-war with the volume.
Following duty in the Pentagon with the National Military Command Center, he commanded the “Flying Nightmares” of VMFA-513 at Cherry Point in 1967-1968 flying F-4Bs.
Then there was Vietnam. During that unfortunate conflict, Bob, now a Lieutenant Colonel, deployed in 1968 and flew combat missions in Marine Corps F-4 Phantoms and TA-4F/OA-4M Skyhawks with MAG-11 based at Da Nang Air Base, Vietnam. In August 1967, the Marine Corps introduced the two-seat TA-4F Skyhawk to combat operations in Vietnam. Converted into the OA-4M designation (Observation/Attack), the Marine Corps leveraged the aircraft’s good low-level fuel specs, FM radio (for contact with ground units) and excellent rear seat visibility, a combination that resulted in a superb vehicle for Visual Reconnaissance and Tactical Air Coordination, commonly called “Fast-FAC” (Fast Forward Air Control) operations. Armed with two pods of 5-inch “Zuni” rockets, one each for target marking using smoke and high-explosive, and full 20mm ammunition for the aircrafts twin cannons, the aircraft was an immediate success. And in 1969, when Bob was overseas and in command of MAG-11’s Headquarters and Maintenance Squadron 11 (H&MS-11), all of the Skyhawks in theater were placed under his charge. Although I remember my Uncle telling me about his one ride in an A-6 Intruder (my primary platform flown in the Navy) during his time in Vietnam, the Skyhawk was the only airframe we shared as aviators, me having flown the aircraft in Advanced Jet Training at NAS Pensacola in 1989-1990.
As Commanding Officer of H&MS-11 from 15 October 1968, LtCol Stowers flew combat missions from Da Nang. He most likely flew almost daily Skyhawk missions, in addition to other F-4B sorties, many involving then secret strikes in Laos. At the time, the Skyhawk mission became known by the unit callsign “Playboy,” homage to the F-4U Corsair FastFACs of earlier times in the Korean War, and each pilot was assigned a discrete number. Bob was “Playboy Pilot #69.” Normal missions were two-cycle, with airborne refueling in the middle, for an average sortie length of about three hours. Some Playboys flew three missions per day in the summer of 1969, easily logging over 100 combat flight hours per month.
It was during his 15 month deployment to Vietnam that my Aunt Gloria took advantage of an opportunity to be close to family. Remember, Gloria was my Mother’s sister. They ended up living a block over in our neighborhood of Ives Estates. Of course I was only two or three years old, so I have no recollection of this time.
I remember sitting in his home’s living room, an overly long room, terrific for entertaining. At one end was his wet bar, adorned with most of the military paraphernalia he chose to display. One evening while I was visiting he got out some old photo albums, and he proceeded to tell me about “some of the crashes” he was involved in. Some? One is enough in this modern, zero-defect Navy, and I had NONE. There were pictures of a bomb-laden A-4 (from what I remember) which had run off the runway and suffered a collapsed main-mount from a high-speed abort on takeoff, always a risky exercise in jet aircraft, let alone one slung with high explosive ordnance.
The Playboy’s operating environment was characterized by non-radar, visually acquired and manually tracked antiaircraft weapons fire, so moving low at 200-500 feet above ground level at nearly 400 knots while smoothly maneuvering in three dimensions almost completely negated any potential firing solution. Skyhawks were in and out of a gunner’s envelope almost before he could react, so they were seldom fired on with any accuracy, and almost never hit.
Bob returned to the states in approximately 1970, serving at MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina, where I’m sure he flew that Trojan down to Florida and gave me one of my earliest, more prominent memories. From there he took duty at Headquarters, Marine Corps with the Inspector General’s office. His final tour was with the European Command’s Airborne Command Post at RAF Mildenhall, England. In this last tour, Colonel Stowers acted as part of an austere airborne battle staff standing ready 24/7 to assume interim nuclear weapons control authority if European Command’s terrestrial Command Center was destroyed or rendered inoperative in Operation Silk Purse.
We visited my Uncle in England during his final tour, when my parents started to travel the world, dragging me along as a very young and impressionable boy. I remember his huge house being coal heated and located on an old, run-down WWII English airfield, which still had many of its bomb shelters and fighting positions still in place. We did visit him in his official offices, but those memories are only vaguely recalled, but I remember celebrating the 4th of July there that summer. The highlight of the trip: a bat getting caught in the upstairs bedrooms of the home. A BAT! Pretty big deal for a boy from bat-less South Florida.
Robert M. Stowers retired from Active Duty as a full Colonel on July 1st, 1976, 33 years after first enlisting in the military. In addition to campaign and commendation awards garnered during his long service to country, he was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Bronze Star, and Five Air Medals, all with Combat “V” for valor under fire in combat. His post retirement was spent in Hollywood, Florida, and involved flying until the late 1990s in general aviation and air charters, along with almost daily golf outings on the course adjacent to his home.
I saw a good deal of my Uncle growing up in South Florida after he retired. It was about a 30 minute drive to his home from mine, which was the location for many if not most of the larger family gatherings of the late 1970s and 1980s. I was fairly close to my slightly older cousin Suzanne, and I slept over the Stowers’ house on many weekend. Having nearly an Olympic size pool (with a waterslide) of course made his home a natural hangout; the sheer size of the place allowed room for even the reception of my brother’s wedding when I was 16 (I think). Oh, and at that event, hiding behind my Uncle’s full wet bar described above, my best friend Joel and I drank ourselves into a stupor using the ample booze available. To this day I cannot drink, nor even suffer the smell of a screwdriver!
One of the funniest stories involving my Uncle happened during my college years, where I was enrolled in the Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) on scholarship to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in upstate New York. I was in my freshman year, where Midshipmen are treated, well, like the neophytes they are called. Sometime in September or October that fall, I received an urgent message to report to the “MOI” – the Marine Officer Instructor, some unmemorable Captain. Changing into uniform and literally running from my dorm to the Armory offices, I knock, uncover and report. There the MOI and his enlisted henchman “Top” were waiting. Keep in mind it’s something like 1830 on a week day not normally involved in unit business.
And there ensues a line of questioning, more transmit from the MOI and receive on my part. He wasted no time in firing for effect: “Midshipman King, you understand that your vision will preclude you from being a pilot?” “Yes Sir,” I respond somewhat confusingly. Of course I know that. I knew my dreams of being a military pilot, and most likely an astronaut, were ended before they even really ever began when I had to get glasses in grade school. But I was on “Plan B,” an effort to get as close as I could get: become a Naval Flight Officer (NFO), and hopefully attempt a transition waiver to pilot and/or astronaut from within as standards were loosened over time. By the way, today you can have corrective surgery and be pretty much whatever you want….
“Midshipman King, you understand that you may have an opportunity to transition to pilot once commissioned, but that there are no guarantees!”, said more as a emphatically factual statement than question. This time a slight pause…and then a less enthusiastic response from me, “Yes…Sir.” What was going on here, I thought to myself? There were probably a couple more statements pretending to be questions, and finally, the tone trailed off, “Midshipman King, do you have any questions?” I stood there at attention, staring at some Marine Corps “oorah” framed-photo on the wall, seeing those two relatively blankly serious faces staring back at me through my peripheral vision. “No Sir.”
“Dismissed.” As quickly as it started, it ended. I about-faced, marched out of the office, covered, and walked slowly back to my dorm room, thinking that I surely was in trouble for something. And I can tell you that in the following weeks I held my breath around the MOI and his Master Sergeant, both of whom seemed to very often seek or single me out, waiting for the other shoe to drop. But it never did….
Until I was home that year for Thanksgiving. Of course being the proud up-and-coming Naval Officer that I was, I was wearing my uniform. And, in true King fashion, Thanksgiving for the family was held at my Uncle’s palatial residence in Hollywood, Florida. Seeing my Uncle again and shaking his hand, we chatted about things we always chatted about – planes, flying and the military. And he happened to mention that the current Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Paul Kelley, was a friend of his. I think they met in Vietnam and served together later at HQMC. He went on to state that he asked the General to look after me. HOLY SHIT! I was screaming on the inside! It all suddenly made perfect sense: the mid-week, after-hours call to duty, the questioning, the impromptu run-ins with the USMC staff at the unit. Yikes. I can only imagine how every single staff member at that NROTC unit must have thought, knowing that I had a personal connection to the Marine Corps Commandant after a personal call from him or his office! Too funny.
By the way, my eyes remained much too bad for any chance of a transition to pilot during my service (20/100 was the cutoff; that’s me times 2 or a little bit more), and the same limit applied to the military’s astronaut program. I have since had PRK and have 20/20 vision in each eye, but my reading vision is now completely shot.
My brother Boyd also recalls the type of cool-cookie, seasoned aviator my Uncle had become. On one charter flight from Miami to Haiti in a twin-engine Cessna 310, Uncle Bob failed to brief Boyd that when at cruising altitude, he was going to switch to the aircraft’s auxiliary fuel tanks which he would let run dry. He was sitting reading the paper and doing the crossword puzzle (which he would always be doing) while Boyd was hand flying when the right engine started to cough and spurt. Boyd, being in a small plane over the middle of the ocean, immediately puckered-up and prepared for the worst. Uncle Bob, however, didn’t even put his paper down or even look away from the crossword puzzle that was subsuming his attention. He just casually reached down and switched to the main fuel tank, putting life-blood back into the failing engine, restoring it to full functionality.
I think the last time I saw Colonel Stowers in Uniform was at my cousin Suzanne’s wedding in 1988, the year I graduated college, was commissioned in the Navy, got married (and had a baby), and started flight school. At the time my Aunt Gloria, Bob’s wife, was declining quickly from throat cancer. I remember attending the wedding and seeing my Uncle, still so very handsome with his close-cropped military hair and penetrating ice-blue eyes. He was, and always will be, a hero almost larger-than-life.
I didn’t see much of my Uncle after leaving home for flight school in November 1988. The military has a way of doing that to you. My Aunt died that year, and at some point my Uncle married a woman we know simply as “Sally.” And that marriage ended up chilling a large portion of my relationship with Bob (and to a large extent for his kids, or so I’m told). Sally didn’t seem to care for children, and I had two. She seemed snooty and unwarm. Sally and Bob moved into a stuffy, sterile, and much smaller home. But some shared family holidays and vacations continued.
Uncle Bob died on October 23, 2005 at 80 years of age, while I was assigned to Tactical Air Control Squadron 12. At the time, I was afloat as part of Commander, Amphibious Squadron 11 on the USS Essex (LHD-2), en route to the Northern Arabian Gulf in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I don’t even recall my family, being overly reticent about such news, even informing me at the time about his passing. Not that I could’ve done anything about it. It was as if he just disappeared into the night for me, one day there, the next day simply not. He is survived by his son Larry, daughters Roberta “Robbie” Schappert and Suzanne Hogan, and many grandchildren. His gravestone, found in Fred Hunter’s Hollywood Memorial Gardens North (Section 2, Lot 20), reads:
Robert M. Stowers, COL US MARINE CORPS
WWII KOREA VIETNAM
Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star Medal W/V
Old soldiers never die; they just fade away. Never more apt than for Colonel R.M. Stowers, USMC (Ret.). He will live on forever in the hearts and minds of those he led, touched, and loved. I am honored to have known such a great man, and hope that one day I’ll find that I have made him equally as proud to have me as his nephew.