Mike Odom, a Navy veteran of World War II, witnessed the Japanese surrender aboard the battleship Missouri. Arden Rowley, an Army veteran of the Korean War, was a prisoner of war for nearly three years. Hear both men’s stories about their military service and how it changed their lives.
Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Horizon". I'm Ted Simons. Republican political consultant Wes Gullett is showing signs much interest in running for mayor of Phoenix. Gullett helped Senator John McCain run for office and served with former governor Fife Symington. Gullett now run as public affairs firm. He has yet to file the necessary paperwork to run for mayor, but he says he likely will do so soon. The first major offensive by the Chinese during the Korean War was fast and ferocious. The sheer number of Chinese troops overwhelmed the U.S. Army's Second Engineer Combat Battalion. Mesa resident Arden Rowley was a member of that battalion. He was captured and spent the next 33 months as a prisoner of war.
Arden Rowley: November 30th of 1950, the Chinese communist come into the Korean War across the border and they just completely overran us. My battalion, second engineer combat battalion, was acting as a rear guard, and my battalion commander ordered our colors to be burned because surrounding and capture was imminent for many of us. He didn't want them to be captured by the Chinese communists and be used as a trophy of war. So he ordered the burning. This is an artist's conception of those colors being burned on the 30th of November of 1950. 320 of the men of my battalion were taken prisoners of war at that time. More than 200 were killed. During that action. Those who survived and got out held a formation on the 10th of December. There were only 288 out of more than 800 men battalion in the formation that they held there.
Ted Simons: And joining me now with more about his Korean War experience is former prisoner of war Arden Rowley, who is also a Grand Marshal in the 2010 VA Veterans' Day parade right here in Phoenix. Good to have you here. Thank you so much for joining us. And you're an Arizona native.
Arden Rowley: You bet.
Ted Simons: Amazing stuff here. Burning the colors, talk to us about from that scene we shot, that painting, that rendition, what happened next?
Arden Rowley: Well, we were just completely overwhelmed. Capture was imminent, and on the morning of December 1st, the morning after the burning of those colors on the night of the 30th, we were just overwhelmed, and many of us taken prisoner of wars at that time.
Ted Simons: Talk to us about being a -- let's start with the original experience. You were a prisoner of war for 33 months.
Arden Rowley: Yes.
Ted Simons: Did it change over those months? The experience?
Arden Rowley: It did somewhat. The first several months were months of starvation. Near starvation with a very meager diet of millet or cracked corn. And many men couldn't survive. Many men contracted diseases or malnutrition, anti-vitaminosis, dysentery was rampant, and many men died from those diseases, in addition to brutality from the guards and just plain freezing to death.
Ted Simons: I was going to ask, I want to get to the abuse in a second, but something we may not think about too much, is just something as simple as the weather. Freezing cold there, wasn't it?
Arden Rowley: It was cold.
Ted Simons: All the time?
Arden Rowley: You're supposed to ask me how cold was it.
Ted Simons: I'm sorry, I messed that up. How cold was it?
Arden Rowley: It was so cold, if you spit, it would freeze before it hit the ground. It was so cold, the engine oil in the engines of the vehicles would turn to jelly. It was so cold, if you touched a metal object with your hand, it would stick there. Like the tongue on the flag pole in "A Christmas Story". It was so cold, if you were talking to me, the words would come out all frozen. I'd have to put them in a pot of hot water and thaw them out.
Ted Simons: How did you survive? How do you survive something like that?
Arden Rowley: I had practically everything I owned on my body. I had six layers on the top, I had four layers on my -- from my waist down, I had heavy wool socks and a pair of combat boots and a pair of overshoes on my feet. And I was still cold.
Ted Simons: I was going to say, did the other guys give you trouble for being an Arizona boy?
Arden Rowley: They made fun of me.
Ted Simons: I bet they did.
Arden Rowley: A desert rat like you, how are you standing this?
Ted Simons: Obviously you survived it, but 33 months, there had to be some exceedingly rough times. How difficult was it?
Arden Rowley: We marched for 24 nights. And we marched at night to keep us out of sight of the American aircraft, because we had complete air superiority at that time. They would put us in the buildings early in the morning, and we'd stay there all day and march again the next -- when it got dark again. For 24 nights. And from the first of -- from the 1st of December, we walked into our first POW camp the morning after those 24 nights, which made it Christmas day.
Ted Simons: My goodness.
Arden Rowley: Stayed -- the -- our captors keep news that POW camp for 3Â½ weeks. During that time they were taking hold, and men became very weak. In fact, all along the march we had to half carry and half drag those who were wounded to make sure they weren't -- didn't fall out of the column of march so the guards wouldn't shoot them. We arrived at that POW camp and stayed for the 3Â½ weeks and during that time at least 300 or 350 men died, of the things that I mentioned.
Ted Simons: Describe the conditions. It sounds like you were at more than one camp. But describe just the general conditions of a camp.
Arden Rowley: Filth.
Ted Simons: That's it, huh? Just overall filth.
Arden Rowley: One of the saving graces was the fact it was so cold. Even at that, in the rooms we were crammed in so tightly, festering of the wounds of certain men and so forth, it became -- we became used to it. But I can imagine if somebody from outside, somebody in the states would be put right in the middle of one of our rooms they'd probably have passed out. It was just very, very difficult. Especially the men who had dysentery, couldn't control themselves. But the second POW camp I was in later, a little later, got there on January 26th of -- of 1951. Another 3Â½ months or so, another 1600 men died. Out of the some 7,140 American Service men who became prisoners, about 3,500 of us came home.
Ted Simons: You mentioned abuse by the guards. Were all of the guards abusive? Some? Were there some guards that actually you could sense humanity? You could feel --
Arden Rowley: Yes, there were some. Many of the guards -- in fact, many of the troops that were fighting with the so-called Chinese people's volunteers, volunteers, yeah, had been fighting the communists during the Civil War there, which ended in 1949 with the communist taking over. So many of the men and -- we got some sympathy from guards that had been -- who had served, and once in a while one of them would say,. [speaking Korean] Just on the sly.
Ted Simons: But for the most part, these weren't friendly folks.
Arden Rowley: No.
Ted Simons: And they weren't looking --
Arden Rowley: By no means. The main brutality that took place was if a man fell out of the marching column. And was left behind. Somebody couldn't pick them up and take them any farther. They either fell off to the side unnoticed and froze to death, or they were sometimes shot by the guards. Just as -- because it was inconvenient to deal with them.
Ted Simons: Now, we have a picture of you when you were released from the POW camp. And the picture shows a relatively healthy looking young man. But you're saying that's only because when they knew when they were going to release you they started fatten you up a little bit.
Arden Rowley: The armistice was signed on the 27th of July much 1953, it was on the 18th of August I was released. So there was more than three weeks. They started giving us food that we hadn't seen in 33 months. And I'm sure that's part of the reason I looked fairly healthy. Quite Frankly, Ted, over my whole experience I was fairly healthy. And I was able at times because I was fairly -- relatively healthy and strong, that I had a chance to help my fellow POWs. And I could tell you it doesn't -- half a dozen stories, but time wouldn't permit.
Ted Simons: I'm sure you could. You mentioned your health. And I want to get to post-war experiences, because you've had experiences with the VA. Some folks aren't necessarily all that positive about the VA for a variety of reasons. You are. Talk to us about it.
Arden Rowley: You know, before I made contact with the VA, it wasn't until 1983.
Ted Simons: Wow.
Arden Rowley: That's 30 years after I came home. I was contacted and said that you need come for a protocol exam. I was examined, given a disability rating, it was small at first, but from that point on, my wife could see a difference. We -- I became involved in POW groups that would talk about their experiences. And quite frankly, my wife at times -- I never know when you're going to come home mad or in a good mood. And it was discovered that most POW wives got together at the first POW reunion my wife and I went to in 1983 also, and they said, is your husband always mad? Well, there was kind of a consensus that -- but those reunions and getting together with my fellow former POWs and talking, and just saying, remember when this happened, remember that? There were a thousand remember-whens, and ensuing years I, my wife tells me I really mellowed a lot.
Ted Simons: Isn't that interesting.
Arden Rowley: And it's because of the services of the VA.
Ted Simons: Indeed. And also, you -- along with those services, and post-traumatic stress disorder and being able to combat that and be able to address that, you have strong feelings about veterans talking about their war experiences. Some don't want to do it, some want to forget it. You say --
Arden Rowley: I feel very strongly about that.
Ted Simons: Talk to us about that.
Arden Rowley: The very first reunion I went to that I mentioned, Dayton, Ohio, in 1983, obviously -- we would sit down and talk, and remember when this, remember that? And some POW would say, I don't want to remember that. I want to forget it. No, I don't remember that. And I simply replied, you know, I don't want to forget one second of it. I don't want to forget one second of my experience. If I forgot, I would forget those hundreds of men who sacrificed their lives in the POW camps for freedom. And it would dishonor them. If I forgot. So I want to remember to honor them.
Ted Simons: You also have honored these men and all veterans, at your house. You used to have a monument in your front yard --
Arden Rowley: I still do. Let me tell about you that.
Ted Simons: Please do.
>> There was a pine tree in our front yard that was leaning to one side, and we took it out, let it fall down. And so it left a bare spot in the yard. And I got to think about what to put there. And I asked my wife one day, honey, what if I -- what if we put a Korean War Veterans' Memorial in our yard? So I did. I had a granite monument carved, and place there, and a 20 hitch foot flag pole that has the U.S. flag and the POW flag flying underneath it. We dedicated that memorial on Veterans Day of 1997. When Memorial Day rolled around in 1998, late May, we decided to have a small memorial service. So we invited the neighborhood. We had 40 people there in 1998. Memorial Day. We continued that memorial Service every year for eight years. And gradually it grew, and the last one we held in 2006 we had over 600 people in our front yard and in bleachers on the street, the city set up bleachers for us and blocked off the street. It was just a good patriotic program honoring those who gave their lives. We had a memorial wreath which we had members from the audience come and place the flag for somebody they wanted to remember in that regard in the sacrifice they made for their country. And after eight years, my wife's health started failing, and so we stopped doing that. Bless her heart, I tell you, I love her. She supported me, and it was great.
Ted Simons: I tell you what, we have to stop, unfortunately, because could I talk to you forever. The fact that you don't want anyone to forget what happened, I think is wonderful. And we aren't going to forget you. We thank you so much for joining us and thank you so much for your service.
Arden Rowley: You're welcome, Ted.
Ted Simons: Thank you.
Arden Rowley: I'm happy to be here.
Ted Simons: And now we turn our attention to World War II. I recently spoke with Sun City recent Mike Odom about his experiences as a gunner's mate in the navy. Mike, thank you so much for joining us on "Horizon".
Mike Odom: Yes, sir.
Ted Simons: Let's talk about your military career here. You enlisted in the navy, wound up as -- on board troop transport ships?
Mike Odom: Yes. I enlisted in St. Louis. Then when we was shipped to Providence, Rhode Island, to that base that was there, and then I called a -- caught a ship out of there, and it was a troop transport. And there was 118 officers and men aboard the transport. We were taking soldiers over to Europe. We made three round trips safely, no problems. But on the fourth trip we were 17 miles out from England when we took a couple of torpedoes from a German U-boat. And that put us down. The crew that was -- there was 118 of us in the crew plus we had 1500 soldiers aboard. And as far as I know from what I heard, was told there was 17 out of the bunch that got saved, that picked up. But out of the crew, there were six of us that was saved.
Ted Simons: Wow.
Mike Odom: Now, they made fun of me because we had two types of life preservers. We had what they called the Mae West, like a jacket, and then they had a belt type, which was that wide. I wore both of them. But they made fun of me for doing it. And it didn't bother me a bit.
Ted Simons: I'll bet.
Mike Odom: Because if one went kaput, I got the other one to rely on. I wore that the whole time, even when I was shipped to the facility. And I got wound there.
Ted Simons: Let's go -- so from the troop transport, and that situation, were you wounded, but you wound up -- I guess wounded to your neck, but you wound up on another destroyer and this one -- this -- they sent to you Hawaii and you wound up -- talk to us about that.
Mike Odom: That was later on. After I was wounded there, 17 miles out from England.
Ted Simons: Right.
Mike Odom: And they patched me up, I was there I guess a couple of weeks when they flew a bunch of us back to New York. And then we got ship shape there, and they flew us into San Francisco, San Francisco to Honolulu. And I caught a destroyer out of there. Or, they assigned me to a destroyer. "The Hitchcock". And we went through the Mariana Islands, which was a rough campaign. Which is about 600 miles west of Honolulu. And that's when the Japanese started using what they referred to as kamikazes. And they were from 18 to 22 years old, the Japanese pilots were. They didn't carry no identification, they didn't carry no guns on the plane, they carried one 500-pound bomb. And they would zero in on a ship and that's all she wrote, if it wasn't shot down before. I was aboard this one ship, and my -- I was from Missouri, my friend was from Illinois. And I seen that joker coming. And I told Cole, I said, we better hit the water, because I said, he's going to blow this ship half in two. He said, the captain hasn't said "abandon ship" yet. I said, he may not live to say abandon ship. I said, let's go. So I had maybe a hundred feet to go to run to the fantail, and I loaded in the water. Well, about three seconds later he was right behind me. And that thing, he hit the bridge and blowed it half in two. Blowed the bridge on that ship half in two. But we're in the water. I got a little bit of shrapnel on me then. P.T. boat picked us up, and took us to the doctor ship, it was a doctor ship, took us there and got us patched up. And we was aboard I guess for about three, 3Â½ days. When the Missouri was coming in. And me being from Missouri, they put on the bulletin board that they wanted 15 volunteers. I was the first one to sign the board, and some of my friends signed it too. And we -- the Missouri, we went through the rest of the campaigns in the Pacific, and never got hit. And I was aboard the Missouri when the signing took place, and I was up in my -- I was a gunner's mate, and I had made first class at that time, and my gun was fed from -- with ammunition from about 30 feet below deck. It was fed on a chain, and I had two pedals, one for the right foot, one for the left foot, the left would turn me to the left, my right foot would turn me to the right. It was electric.
Ted Simons: Sure.
Mike Odom: And they -- it would fire 350 rounds per minute.
Ted Simons: Were you there when the Japanese signed the treaty? Is that exactly where you were?
Mike Odom: Yes, I was up in my gun mount, about 30 feet above the tables to where the Japanese and the Americans were.
Ted Simons: Did it feel as important as it was?
Mike Odom: Well, I guess. I don't know. We wasn't allowed to take pictures.
Ted Simons: Sure.
Mike Odom: Wasn't allowed. They come around, if you told them no, they would search you and find out.
Ted Simons: I'll bet.
Mike Odom: If you had cameras. And so nobody took any pictures. And they -- I guess they was about -- there was a long table that reached halfway across the Missouri, I guess it was probably 30 feet long. The Japanese over there, the Americans over here. I'm sitting up here about 30 feet above them, the Americans. And when they -- when the signing took place, and I think the best of my knowledge I think it was 26 Japanese over on this side of the tables, and they all signed it. And they was the same amount of Americans on this side of the table that signed it. It would be one Japanese sign, and it would pass, and an American would sign it. These were all officers. The Americans.
Ted Simons: Let me ask you, one last thing, because we're running out of time. These are amazing stories, a U-boat gets you, a kamikaze plane almost gets you, you're on board the Missouri, you're witnessing history. All of these things happen to you, when you look back now and you're able to look back, and you can stalk about these kinds of things, does it seem like it was you? Does it seem like could it have been a different person? Does it seem like long ago? Does it seem like yesterday?
Mike Odom: In some cases -- it seems like it was yesterday. I wake up at night, I do, dreaming about it. A lot of times, I do. And I can't help it.
Ted Simons: You've served your country valiantly, and you know that.
Mike Odom: I don't want to go through it again.
Ted Simons: No, you won't go through it again. Once is enough. And we thank you so much for your Service. And thank you for being on "Horizon".
Mike Odom: Yep.
Ted Simons: The theme for this year's Veterans' Day parade is defending freedom, protecting dreams. The parade will start at 11:00 a.m. tomorrow at Seventh Street and Montecito and head west on Camelback road and will turn north on Central and end at Bethany home Road.
Ted Simons: That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.
In this segment:
Arden Rowley:veteran;Mike Odom:veteran;
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