Editor's note: This article is the second in a two-part series highlighting the military experiences of Wilburn Rowden.
On March 8, 1944, a 20-year-old Wilburn Rowden from the rural Missouri community of Vienna was parachuting toward the German countryside after the B-17 Flying Fortress he served aboard was shot out of the sky by a German flying ace.
The U.S. and Germany were embroiled in World War II, and the young airman had no idea what he might face when landing upon the earth.
"I felt a stinging sensation in my arms and legs as I neared the ground," Rowden recalled. "I landed in a small clearing, and my parachute caught in top of a small tree, which bent over due to my weight and let me down easily."
When reaching the ground, Rowden noticed he was bleeding from his arms and legs — injuries that were the result of shrapnel from the German attack on his aircraft. However, he had little time to assess his injuries since members of German Luftwaffe (Air Force) approached with their rifles ready to fire.
The young airman was summarily apprehended and taken to a dispensary on a German airbase, where he received rudimentary medical treatment for his injuries. Unable to move his arms and legs because of the bandaging, a young Russian soldier, also in captivity, helped feed Rowden the one "skimpy meal" they were given daily.
He was moved to a hospital in Frankfurt, Germany and later placed on a train bound for destinations unknown. While aboard the train, he encountered his navigator and pilot, the latter of whom had successfully crashed landed their aircraft. However, he received the sad news that their co-pilot and bombardier were missing; he later discovered they had been killed.
"I was interrogated at Dulag Luft," Rowden said. "There, I was given additional clothing from the Red Cross consisting of British clothes and hobnailed shoes."
Dulag Luft served as a transition camp where captured air crews were processed before transfer to a larger prison camp. Soon, Rowden was traveling by train to Stalag Luft VI (German prison camp) in East Prussia.
"When we got to camp, one of the prisoners yelled, 'You ain't gonna like it here,'" Rowden said. "Truer words were never spoken."
He solemnly added, "I remember dreading passing through the gate and seeing it close behind me. I remember the guards in the towers with their weapons always in sight of us."
Provided with scant food often consisting of potatoes, cabbage or turnips and a limited amount of meat, Rowden remarked that once a week they were marched to a nearby building for a shower. On rare occasions, they enjoyed food parcels provided by the American Red Cross.
Days earlier, when processing as a prisoner of war, one of his fellow American internees had a small camera in his possession. A few of the prisoners took turns passing the camera around to prevent its discovery by the guards. Occasionally, one of the POWs secretly snapped a picture, some of which showed the bodies of emaciated American prisoners lying in open trenches after dying in captivity.
"They began moving us to Stalag IV at Gross Tischau, Germany, on July 15, 1944," he said. "Artillery explosions were becoming louder and more frequent and the Russian invasion was getting close."
On the final march to Stalag IV, Rowden recalls a lot of yelling and shouting, guard dogs in their midst and the energetic German "marine/sailors" stabbing prisoners with bayonets if they appeared to be moving too slowly.
"I received a small bayonet wound in the calf of my right leg on this march because I wasn't running fast enough to suit the young guard," he said.
Marching away from Stalag Luft IV on Feb. 6, 1945, the guards used their weapons and dogs to keep the prisoners in a group. Filthy and covered with lice, the prisoners lived in a state of near starvation. Soon, the guards became less hostile toward them since they realized the war was nearing its end.
After having endured road marches estimated at 500 miles in length and suffering countless deprivations, Rowden's strength and stamina paid dividends when he was liberated by the 104th Division on April 26, 1945.
He returned home in June 1945 and married his fiancee, Launa Helton, several weeks later. He was discharged from the service in November 1945, and in the years following his wartime duty, became father to three daughters. In 1946, he joined the Missouri National Guard and retired in 1983 at the rank of Chief Warrant Officer 4 with more than 38 years of service.
"I guess I could have stayed a couple more years and gotten promoted, but I think I had enough of it," he said with a grin.
The proud recipient of an Air Medal and Purple Heart, Rowden said his service in World War II was certainly an eye-opening experience for a young man who had once known little of the world outside of Mid-Missouri.
"It was all an adventure that began on Jan. 7, 1943, when I was inducted into the U.S. Army," Rowden said. "I was just a backwoods country boy who ended up seeing a lot of country, becoming a prisoner of war and obtaining a lot of experience that few can even imagine."
He concluded, "But somehow I made it through it all. When looking back on the experience, I can say that I am forever proud that I served my country."
Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.