Reluctant war heroes, their stories live on

Battling time, a Sherborn historian persuades World War II veterans to share their memories for the sake of future generations

By Kathleen E. Moore
Globe Correspondent / November 8, 2009

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SHERBORN - It’s a generation that does not always cotton to publicity, fanfare, or the awkward questions of people who weren’t there. But for more than two dozen World War II veterans and their families, the gentle prodding of Betsy Johnson has been reason enough to revisit the past.

For John Stewart, a retired salesman, Johnson’s inquiries were an opportunity to give his humble thanks to the men who died before he served as a Navy fire control man out of Pearl Harbor.

“I was lucky to be assigned to my ship, to serve with men who survived,’’ he said last week. “They were the heroes.’’

His neighbor, William J. Ford Jr., said he was relieved to share his experiences as a B-24 bomber pilot with someone who would feed the curiosity of future generations.

“My children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren are curious about what happened. I can understand that,’’ said Ford, who still has a leather attaché full of his now-yellowed military records. “I want people to know.’’

And for Mary Elizabeth “Betty’’ Dowse, who spoke about her husband’s war experiences, Johnson’s investigations separate fact from fiction.

“I think it’s important to take away some of the glamour of the big battles,’’ she said, to look at World War II “from a distance and see that it wasn’t that glamorous. It was a different time, and it was difficult, knowing there were some who would not come back. It’s important that we realize what really went on.’’

The result - two loose-leaf volumes titled “Memories of World War II: Personal Narratives of the Veterans of World War II from Sherborn, Massachusetts’’ - is a mosaic of hometown pride, scholarly discipline, and genuine reverence for the subjects. It is filled with battle maps, newspaper clippings, and the type of can did reflections that never push sentimentality. The ever-expanding collection is available in the Sherborn Public Library and through the Sherborn Historical Society.

“I wish I had started this earlier,’’ said Johnson, a retired history teacher. “I have a few interviews that I’ve completed, but I don’t have time to edit them because I want to keep interviewing people who are still living. Time works against me.’’

Johnson’s angst does not surprise her subjects. “Betsy is very thorough,’’ said Dowse, who spoke to Johnson at length about her husband, Second Lieutenant Charles A. Dowse Jr., a B-29 navigator who died 20 years ago. “She went to other sources to verify everything. I’ve known her since she was a young girl, and it doesn’t surprise me a bit.’’

Prior to interviewing World War II veterans, Johnson said, her passion was Colonial history. Her interest shifted to the 20th century after she completed her first interview with Mowry Kingsbury Cookson Jr., a local Army veteran who died in 2000.

“Mowry was there when Ernie Pyle was killed,’’ she said, referring to the famed war correspondent who was with troops fighting the Japanese in the Pacific.

“They dove into some ditches to avoid enemy fire, and, not being trained, he stuck his head up to look,’’ she said, recalling her interview with Cookson. “I knew these were going to be a portal into the past for future students.’’

One of those portals to history is Stewart, 85, who was in the Navy from 1943 to 1946 and served board the USS Craven.

“When I got to Pearl Harbor it was two and a half years after the Japanese had bombed, but you could see what they’d done,’’ he said in an interview. “When we went by the ships they left behind -they called it Battleship Row - there was absolute silence. You just wanted to absorb it more than anything. You were in shock for the men who had died.’’

As a fire control man, Stewart said, he was responsible for aiming the destroyer’s guns at enemy ships, airplanes, or land targets from atop a towering structure known as the director. Crammed inside this sentry post were as many as 12 men.

His destroyer was routinely sent ahead of aircraft carriers to ferret out enemy submarines. It also teased out enemy fire from the shores of islands where Japanese soldiers were hiding. When the enemy fired at them, Stewart said, the American forces knew where to aim their own fire. At the time, the risk didn’t register with Stewart.

“Most of the time, you were very busy. You didn’t have time to think. But sometimes, say when you were on from 12 [midnight] to 4, it could be beautiful, especially if the stars were out,’’ he said.

William J. Ford Jr. was a 19-year-old college sophomore when he heard about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The effect was immediate.

“It made me mad, so I went down and signed up that day,’’ the retired engineer and land surveyor said in an interview. “And my father - he was too young to fight in World War I - so he signed up, too. My poor mother.’’

The two Ford men took different routes - the younger to the Air Force, where he became a B-24 pilot, and the older to the Navy, where he became a commissioned officer on the USS Ticonderoga.

As a bomber pilot, Ford knew that he would routinely fly into harm’s way. He didn’t obsess on his vulnerability - then or now. Such thoughts were particularly a waste of time at 30,000 feet.

“Death was all around us in those times,’’ the 35-year Sherborn resident told Johnson. “I guess you could say that we knew there would be a certain amount of it, and you just hoped it wouldn’t be you or a good friend. How do you handle it? I guess you’re told you’re a soldier; you’ve got to deal with it!’’

Altogether, Ford flew more than 38 missions, garnering the Distinguished Flying Cross for one that took him over Steyr, Austria.

Charlie A. Dowse Jr. was so determined to enlist in the war effort that he disguised his flat feet and distracted military doctors who were checking his eyesight, his widow said.

“He was quick and he had a sharp memory,’’ Betty said of her late husband’s exam-room duplicity. “Or maybe they weren’t looking as hard for minor ailments. Ten years earlier, he would never have passed, but in 1942, if you could move, you were drafted.’’

As a B-29 navigator, Dowse took part in raids out of India to Rangoon, Singapore, and the Bay of Bengal. He also flew out of Tinian, one of the Mariana Islands, where he witnessed the launch of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Betty Dowse shared her husband’s memory of the scene with Johnson: “The Enola Gay and its crew had been kept secreted off in one corner of Tinian’s North Field. Later, Charlie said he had wondered about the ‘snooty group’ that didn’t have anything to do with the rest of them. He was flying a decoy mission when the second atom bomb was dropped at Nagasaki.’’

Like others who participated in Johnson’s history project, Betty Dowse does not wax maudlin about the stories her husband brought back from World War II. She tells them dispassionately, and in painstaking detail, seemingly mindful that any emotion they evoke belongs to the people who lived them.

Still, when she reflects on the project for a moment, she seems hopeful that these narratives will have an impact on modern audiences - people who are unfamiliar with the singular horror of a world at war. That reality is best described by those who survived it.

“When I was young my mother told me I’d never know the feeling of Nov. 11, 1918,’’ she said, referring to the end of World War I and the anniversary marked by Veterans Day. “I can’t say that has changed. It’s hard for one generation to understand what another generation goes through.’’

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