Filling in the blanks World War II POW Jack Jowers reveals his long-held secret

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 21, 2014

SALISBURY — Jack Jowers finally came home Friday.
That’s a strange thing to say, but it’s true.
His friends around Churchland and the crowd at Stamey’s Barbecue in Lexington know Jowers, a retired cable splicer for the telephone company, has been home and part of their lives for decades. Over generations now extending into great-grandchildren, his family also took for granted they could depend on Jowers, now 91.
“There’s no one tougher than Pawpaw,” said one of his grandsons, Air Force Lt. Col. William Chris Robinson. “The toughest man I know.”
But until a couple of weeks ago, none of Jowers’ friends and no one in his family — not even his late wife, Pauline — knew what Jowers had been through as a Japanese prisoner in World War II.
He had kept it hidden from them this long.
They had never heard of his escape from those captors or how he had survived for more than a year in the jungles of French New Guinea until U.S. airships finally arrived.
He never even told his grandson, the officer of whom he has always been so proud.
“It filled in a blank spot in our family history and narrative,” Robinson said Friday.
Richard Turner, Hefner VA Medical Center coordinator for prisoners of war, said Jowers has been a different man since he sat down one day and told nurse practitioner Jeannine Racey his story, then agreed to share it with his family.
In particular, he’s sleeping better, Turner said, because the nightmares are fading.
Jack Jowers finally came home Friday because there he was, during the annual POW/MIA Recognition Day in the VA Chapel, acknowledging a period during the war he had chosen to keep bottled up inside for some 70 years.
A piece of him had never come back — until now.
A native of Georgia, Jowers relocated to North Carolina with his family in his pre-teen years. He enlisted in the Army at Fort Bragg in April 1941, when he was only 18.
The Army sent him to Fort Sill, Okla., for basic training and his eventual assignment to a mule-pack outfit. The mules were soon replaced by mechanized track artillery, and Jowers was still at Fort Sill when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
His outfit loaded up its equipment on flat cars and headed for California, where they shipped out of San Francisco for the war in the Pacific. Jowers trained and waited at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii for three months until heading off on an island-hopping campaign that took him, among other places, to the Marshall Islands, Guadalcanal and Papua New Guinea, where Jowers said matter-of-factly “a lot of activity was going on.”
At one point in the fighting, his company saw soldiers with the French Foreign Legion rushing toward it and yelling something in French the Americans couldn’t quite translate. They knew the word “hell” was included, so the Americans shouted back, “You go to hell, too.”
Jowers said he learned much later in the war the Frenchmen were advising them to “Get the hell out of here.” The Americans should have taken their advice, because Jowers and the others were surrounded and taken captive.
The Japanese guards worked them about a month, refusing to share their rice. When they finally offered the Americans some rice, it was infested with maggots.
The guards explained they could eat rice with maggots or no rice at all.
“When you’re hungry,” Jowers said, “you do anything. Didn’t nobody refuse it.”
Most of the time, the American prisoners were cutting down trees with axes, making a clearing. There were no barracks to sleep in. They had no concept of time — watches and everything else of value had been taken from them, including their shoes.
Jowers guessed he was a prisoner for three or four months before a huge storm blew through one day. The force of the winds and rains were like a typhoon, and Jowers said he and others decided “if we’re going to make it, go now.”
They ran toward the jungle. Jowers said about 15 men were in his group.
“We ran all night long … without looking back,” he said. “It seemed like we never quit running.”
The men who escaped spent the next year living in the jungle, eating the things monkeys ate, such as bananas and berries, relying on birds to warn them of strangers coming.
Jowers didn’t confirm this, but Turner said at least three men in his group died. The men had run into the jungle with only the clothes on their backs.
By that day when they heard American planes overhead — “it was the best sound in the world,” Jowers said — and listened to people talking in a language they understood, Jowers described how he and everybody else were half-naked. Some were skeletal.
His voice cracked a moment at the memory.
One thing Jowers will never forget, after his long stay in the jungle was over, was being offered a Lucky Strike cigarette in a white pack. Lucky Strikes, he told Racey when she interviewed him, had always been in green packs.
Jowers recovered on a Navy ship and, believe it or not, was sent back into action until the end of the war. He took part in the liberation of the Philippines.
Back in the States, after Jowers had gone missing, his parents received a telegram telling them he was presumed dead. They were among the few parents of the war who would receive much better news later.
The pews in the VA Chapel Friday were filled with Davidson County friends of Jowers, and he and his small family sat near the front.
Family members included his daughter, Jan Robinson from Cary and her husband, Wendell; grandsons William and Jack Robinson; and great-grandson Jack Fletcher Robinson.
Lt. Col. Robinson traveled here from Warner-Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. What they had known until a couple of weeks ago was Jack Jowers had been missing for several days during the war, only to make it back safely to American lines.
What they know now are some of the details behind 16 to 18 months when he was first a prisoner, then a jungle survivor.
Racey, the nurse practitioner at the VA, fell in love with Jowers during some of his visits to the VA. When he finally opened up and told her about the time in New Guinea, Racey couldn’t believe it.
She knew the information had to be shared with the family.
Racey stopped Hefner VA Medical Center Director Kaye Green in a hallway one day, and “her heart was exploding,” Green said. Soon the VA staff was arranging for Jowers to be the special guest at the POW/MIA Recognition Day, and Jowers surprisingly agreed.
That’s how far he has come.
The VA didn’t hand out a medal to Jowers Friday, but it presented him with a certificate — “simply a token of our great gratitude, appreciation and honor we have for you,” Green told him.
Green has participated in a lot of these POW/MIA Days — one of the most sacred events held every year at VA facilities — but Friday was probably the most memorable, she said.
William Robinson said his grandfather is the kind of man who seems to know something about everything. Before anyone in the family knew his complete war story, they never doubted he was special.
“He’s always been that guy,” Robinson said.
The toughest man they know.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or