My dad. My hero. It seems fitting to pay some tribute to him on the day set aside to remember and honor our military heroes, although he did not fall in combat.
He was born on his father’s 50th birthday, back in 1920, and he grew up on a small farm in southern Moore County, North Carolina. My grandfather died a month after Daddy turned 8, from complications of high blood pressure; barely a year later my grandmother was pinning on her hat to go to town when a neighbor came with the news that the local bank had crashed — she had, according to family legend, a dime in her purse. So my father grew up hard, doing a man’s work in the tobacco fields, plowing with mules, all the hard work that comes from non-mechanized farming, when he was still a very little boy.
The hardships made him strong. He was 21 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and he wasted no time volunteering for the Army. He did his desert training at March Field, California, only to have his unit sent to the South Pacific instead. They were called the 854th Aviation Engineers, and they did indeed clear the jungle and build landing strips for military aircraft, but they were in fact a Spearheader Unit. Daddy used to say that they were they guys sent in to rescue the Marines.
He served in the Marshall Islands, on Kwajalein. On Guam, he helped build North Field, now part of Anderson AFB, from which air raid missions to Japan were launched. He was on Okinawa.
Three times he was sent with his unit on missions which were expected to have 100% casualty rates; three times miraculous interventions occurred which brought every man back to base, safe.
When the unit had its first reunion, in September, 1976, a representative from the Pentagon informed the men that they had all been hand-picked to serve in this unit, which has served as a forerunner of all Spearheader and Green Beret units we know today.
Dean Lowder was extremely proud to have served the nation through his military service. A peace-loving man, he believed that there were times you had to get tough in order to stop bullies. He would rant against the mainstream media during the Vietnam era, because their news reports compromised the safety and well-being of our troops and fed anti-American propaganda to our enemies. Flag-burning infuriated him as a personal insult. “Free speech” does not extend to treating with utter contempt the sacred symbols of our liberty — or the sacrifices of those who died to secure our liberties.
When the Mi Lai massacre was first reported, he broke his rule of never discussing military matters with non-veterans. “You don’t understand! They don’t understand!” he exploded the night the news broke, before more shameful details were released. “It’s terrible over there! In the Pacific, the women would have grenades hidden between their breasts, in their babies’ diapers!”
Most of the time, he told stories of the men in his unit — the two Italian-Americans who were hopping mad to go fight Mussolini, of the church that had to be destroyed because it was being used as an ammunition holding station by the Japanese. “As soon as the order was given for that target, one of the men stood up, took off his hat and said, ‘Men, we may have to destroy a church, but we can also build it again when we’re done,’ and he passed his hat and we re-built that church.”
He also developed a distaste for the beach that lasted the rest of his life. “I saw more than enough of the ocean during the War,” he’d say, and any vacation we went on as a family, we headed toward the mountains. When we went to the beach, it was without him.
He died on July 10, 1991, of smoking-related lung cancer. The cancer was discovered just two weeks and two days before he died. A tough-as-nails man all his life, he was surprisingly meek when it came to facing death: “I know I’m in God’s hands,” said this man who rarely talked about his religion because talk was cheap. “I’d give a dollar to see you light up a cigarette,” he teased me one afternoon — was he missing smoking that badly? Or was he teasing me for my outward calm without the aid of nicotine as he lay dying? He was slipping into a coma when he began to hemorrhage; a great talker all his life, he talked as he descended into his coma, muttering incoherently, and sometimes we even heard hints of melody — he was singing. I was sitting by his bedside with my cousin Jane, looking over the stack of cards we’d received, listening to the faint murmurings of his conversations with — whom? Suddenly his breathing faltered. I sent Jane for the nurse, reached out for his hand — he sort of choked, then… silence.
I hope he heard me before he left us: I told him one more time: “I love you, Daddy!”