WWII vet part of more productive, but lesser-known squadron
SEYMOUR — Someone stole James D. Owenby's parachute. So before his bombing mission on Dec. 1, 1944, he grabbed one that belonged to a gunner, who sat on it during poker games.
"It worked," said Owenby.
During World War II, Owenby served as a staff sergeant in the Army's 13th Air Force, 5th Bombardment Group, 394th Bombardment Squadron. He did basic training in Miami Beach. At Keesler Army Airfield in Biloxi, Miss., he trained as a flight engineer on the B-24 Liberator, a heavy bomber.
He was 21 the day he flew on the mission out of Morotai Island, in what was then the Netherlands East Indies. The plane carried a crew of 10.
"You had to do 30 long-range bombardment missions," said Owenby Friday at his Seymour farm. This was his 15th, a mission to bomb Japanese personnel on the southern tip of the Negros Island in the Phillippines. "It was going to be a milk run."
In a friendly-fire incident, Owenby's plane was struck by fragmentation bombs from another plane. "The pilot looked at me and said, 'What are we going to do?'" said Owenby. "I said, 'Get the rigging on. We're going to jump.'"
They jumped. "They put a Catalina out there orbiting during a bombing run," said Owenby, referring to a flying boat used in rescue missions. "In case anyone is in trouble, he'll pick us up."
Three were missing. "The radio operator, the navigator and the gunner," said Owenby. "They've got markers in a Manila cemetery."
The living was not easy on Morotai Island. "There's where we stayed the longest and were the most miserable," said Owenby. "Gen. MacArthur was noted for a strategy of starving out the enemy. Well, he just about starved out the troops. We were getting pretty skinny. Looked like prisoners of war." Owenby ate coconuts. "I said, 'If I'm going to live with monkeys, I'm going to eat like them.'"
Owenby left the Pacific theater April 13, 1945, and was discharged Nov. 8, 1945. "I came home and went to farming," he said. He farmed on the Wye Drive land where today he has 52 head of beef cattle. He also worked in quality control at Robertshaw Controls. He retired in 1988. He and his wife, Blanche, have been married 64 years. They have four daughters.
A Seymour native, Owenby attended Harrison-Chilhowee Baptist Academy and Sevier County High School. He was working as an aircraft welder in Alliance, Ohio, when he was drafted at 19.
On Veterans Day, he will attend services at Seymour First Baptist Church.
Owenby wishes the 13th Air Force and the B-24 Liberator were better known. "The B-24 Liberator was loaned, sold and given to more different countries than any other aircraft," he said. "We carried more bombs, hit more targets."
The story of the 13th Air Force in the Pacific is told in the book Forgotten War, Forgiven Guilt, by David A. Witts, who served in the 13th. Holding a copy, Owenby said, "This is the best book ever written."