Military Service

 

 

Daddy was a member of R.O.T.C. at Kansas State. He and Mother were married in 1935, but they did not take a honeymoon until after he completed his six-week R.O.T.C. camp in 1937. He graduated from Kansas State in 1938 with a B.S. in Civil Engineering and worked for several different companies until he received his orders to report for military duty in 1941.

James Madsen Towner entered the Army on September 11, 1941, and separated March 5, 1945, per his Army Separation Qualification Record. The numbers don’t exactly add up, but his Separation Record says he spent forty-five months as a Searchlight Unit Officer (Major) and seven months as Anti-Aircraft Artillery Operations Officer (Major). His separation record (see gallery) gives a summary of his service.

When Daddy entered into active service, he went directly into artillery, where he said the army was placing all engineers at the time. Before the U. S. entered the war in 1941, he was ordered to duty on his Asst. Lt. Reserve Officer commission for one year and one day active service and reported to Camp Wallace south of Houston, Texas. Daddy wrote that he remembered the hurricane along the gulf coast in 1941 while he was stationed at Camp Wallace. As the hurricane became more severe, he was told to evacuate Pat and one-year-old daughter Patsy from Galveston Island. All residents were being evacuated. He drove their 1941 Ford into Jack Tar Courts, picked up Mother and Patsy and drove them into Houston, where Mother’s brother Fred lived. The highway from Galveston crossed a causeway about two miles long. He drove about five miles an hour in a solid line of cars along and guided by tall poles attached to the edge of the pavement. He wrote, “The water was over the edge of my running board, it was pouring down windy rain. For about a half an hour we could not see land – just barely the car ahead.” [ 1941 Hurricane ]

Daddy then transferred to Camp Hawn California and then to Army Air Force Center in Orlando, Florida. Mother and Patsy went with him. He was assigned to the 351st AA Battalion, then to the AAFTAC anti-aircraft unit as an instructor in Air Defense. He was commissioned in 1941 as First Lieutenant, Instructor Coast Artillery and Anti-Aircraft for Air Force. Daddy was an expert marksman and also carried a camera with him in the swamps of Florida.

In 1942, on active military service as a reserve 1st. Lieutenant, CAC, AAA Division, AAF School of Applied Tactics, Orlando Army Air Base, Orlando, Florida, Daddy was assigned as instructor of the Searchlight Day Fighter Course and the Senior Officers Course. While he was there, he was responsible for instructing tactical and technical use of the carbon arc sixty-inch searchlight, coordinated with the two-six-eight radar unit. On a typical summer afternoon field units were scattered throughout the area, far into the forests, in orange groves, and often near one of the many lakes. Summertime brought afternoon showers to Orlando. He said he could nearly set his watch to the daily three o’clock afternoon deluges. On that particular afternoon in 1942 he had one two-six-eight radar set up in a grassy clearing among tall pines near his battalion headquarters at the edge of the base. An hour lecture for about ten students was scheduled at the unit for three p.m. He had to stop lecturing several times because of lightning. While posing the question to his students about what would happen if lightning struck a nearby red brick chimney, a bolt hit the chimney, which exploded. At that point, as his story goes, a student asked what would happen if lightning hit the radar unit they were all standing about ten feet from, and they all laughed when one of the men observed and commented that Daddy was the tallest and would be a good target. The next thing Daddy said he remembered was a solid flash of blue in his eyes and a snapping sound like a pencil breaking. Everything went blue-white. He said he didn’t remember hitting the ground, but when he regained consciousness (reportedly fifteen minutes later), he was flat on his stomach, one arm in the damp sand under his head and the other by his side. He said he was confused, scared, angry, and eye-witnesses reported that he was somewhat violent. He tried to get up and run but fell flat in the sand with his pants around his ankles, because his belt and pants had been loosened while they resuscitated him. He was carried to the Jeep and then to the infirmary, where the doctor made him walk and drink a lot of hot black coffee. Later he learned that they actually thought he wasn’t going to make it. He took it easy for a few days and was then released to return to work. Years later, he wrote a short story about this occurrence and called it “A Bolt Out of the Blue.”

Mother loved to talk about how Daddy received orders for overseas deployment several times. Each time they said their tearful good-byes, and each time he showed up at home for dinner that same night saying that his orders had been changed.

Daddy acquired the temporary rank of Lt. Colonel and remained in Florida until he was discharged with the permanent rank of Major. The Department of Veterans Affairs indicates he was released from service on March 5, 1945. Then he, Mother, and my sisters Patsy and Nancy moved to Texas. I was not born yet.

 

Daddy Marries Mother

Mother graduated from Manhattan High School in 1931. She was vice president of the senior class. She played first violin in the school orchestra. I am privileged to have her violin, which she gave to me decades ago, but, sadly, I never heard her play it.

My father and mother met at Kansas State College, where they both attended. He took a course in geology and enjoyed it. He would like to have majored in geology, but unfortunately a major was not offered in that subject, and the school steered him to go into engineering instead. He was a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. Mother’s major was music, and she was a member of Delta Delta Delta social sorority. They met at a school basketball game. He was sitting behind her and her friend, and he thought she was cute, so he threw popcorn at her to get her attention – the beginning of a life-long loving relationship.

Mother and Dad were married on June 8, 1935, at eight o’clock in the evening. An announcement written by Charlotte Mutschler in the Society section of a local newspaper included the following information: Mother was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. William Henry Irwin, and Daddy was the son of Mrs. Petrea Christina Towner of Dwight, Kansas. Because of impassable roads to the country home of the bride’s parents, the ceremony was performed at 804 Moro Street, Manhattan, Kansas, the home of Miss Alice Melton, my mother’s cousin.

Dr. C.E. Holman read the single ring service, and the bridal party stood before the large bay window with a background of roses and ferns. Mother’s sister Alice Irwin was her maid of honor. My father’s brother and only sibling Gordon Towner was best man. A composition by Fritz Kreisler, played by Miss Ruth Grice of Victor, Colorado, preceded the ceremony. Miss Grice played Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March,” as the couple and their attendants entered the room, and she played “To a Wild Rose” during the ceremony. Mother wore a navy blue suit of silk crepe with cape sleeves lined with striped taffeta seersucker. Sweet peas and pink rose buds formed her shoulder corsage. Her sister wore a blue suit with a corsage of yellow rose buds. A reception followed immediately after the ceremony. Those present at the wedding and the reception included Mother’s parents Mr. and Mrs. W. H. Irwin, from Manhattan; Daddy’s mother Mrs. P. C. Towner; Daddy’s cousin Miss Jennie Marie Madsen from Dwight; Mr. and Mrs. William H. Burch and son W. H. Burch, Jr. from Fowler; Mr. and Mrs. Hal McCord, Jr., from Topeka; Miss Ruth Grice from Victor, Colorado; Mr. Phil Glunt from Garrison; Mr. and Mrs. W. B. Roper; Mr. and Mrs. William B. McCord with daughter Eleanor and grandson Jimmy Hayslip; Mr. and Mrs. George McCord; Mr. and Mrs. Hal McCord, Sr.; Mr. Max McCord; Mrs. Warren Keller; and Mrs. C. E. Holman.

Mother and Dad spent their wedding night at the Hotel Sunflower in Abilene, Kansas. The hotel was established in 1931 and described itself on the receipt as “New and fire proof, radio and circulating ice water in every room.” It was an Art Deco concrete and red brick structure and was considered a grand hotel. All rooms were furnished with radio, electric fans, telephones, and reading lamps. It had a coffee shop, drug store, beauty shop, turkish baths, bowling, billiards and a ballroom. [Hotel Sunflower image] Mother and Dad stayed in room 608 at a cost of $3.00 a night.

After their Hotel Sunflower wedding night, Mom and Dad drove to Edmond, Kansas, where Daddy was stationed while he worked for the state highway department.

Daddy was in R.O.T.C. at Kansas State, and soon after they were married, he went to R.O.T.C. camp for six weeks. This delayed their honeymoon to Colorado Springs, Colorado, for two years and two months.

1937 Pat ColoSpgs below Pikes Peak delayed honeymoon aft July camp
Mother on delayed honeymoon at cabin below Pikes Peak, Colorado, July, 1937

 

Daddy received his B.S. in Civil Engineering from Kansas State in 1938. That year he went to work for Humble Oil Company in Houston, Texas. In 1939 he went to work as a supply clerk for National Oil Field Supply Company in Wichita Falls, Texas. He also worked for a geophysics company on the Texas coast for about six months. That company wanted to move him to Iraq or Iran, which he did not want to do, so he quit his job and went home for Christmas. He worked on the Denison dam in Texas; then went back to work for Humble, where he worked for one day, before receiving his orders to report for military duty.

THE IRWIN FAMILY FARM

My mother Patricia Devereaux Irwin, the baby of seven children, was born on December 26, 1912. She was raised on a twelve-acre farm three miles outside of Manhattan, Kansas, on Wildcat Creek. (A photo of Wildcat Creek taken in 1937 is the featured image on this post.) There is evidence that the field in front of the Irwin home was once an Indian campground. Numerous Indian artifacts, such as arrow points, broken pottery, and brass were found through the years on this property. Mother and Daddy framed a collection of the arrowheads they found mostly on this property. Most of the points are quite impressive. The old trail to Fort Riley allegedly crossed Wildcat Creek a hundred yards or so from the farm, and the Indian campground was high enough to be out of danger from the creek when it flooded.

1968-9 abt Mom and Dad with arrowhead showcase
Dad and Mother, proud of their arrow point collection, abt 1968-69

 

 

My oldest sister Patsy has vivid memories of the farm. In a letter to me in 2010, she wrote:

In my mind I tried to follow the road from the main road along the gravel trail next to the railroad tracks to where the road curved to the left. Then I followed the road with the creek on the right side of the car and the alfalfa field on the left all the way to the house. I could see Gramma coming out of the house to greet us. She walked with a swinging gait, her hands held out to greet us. We could hardly get out of the car fast enough. She always had on an apron over a flour sack, homemade dress. Her hugs always had a sweet smell.

The only door they ever used led into the small kitchen. It smelled of bread baking and bacon frying. When I [Patsy] was young, in grade school, the only stove was a wood stove and oven which made the kitchen nice and warm in the winter but nearly unbearable in the summer. Because there was no indoor plumbing, a #2 washtub was the only way to take a bath. Baths were few and far between. Sometimes we would drive into town [Manhattan] to [our] cousin’s…to take baths. When we did get to use the washtub, it was a circus of splashing water and giggles. I’m sure Mother was tired out by the time Nancy and I were finished. By the time Tina came along, Gramma was fortunate to have indoor plumbing. Even then it was just a tin shower and no tub. Rather than getting in the shower with Tina, Mother would give Tina a bath in the large kitchen sink. It was just the right size for a baby bath. One thing I hated, though, was that the water smelled and tasted terrible. I have never smelled that smell since. The water came from a well, and for a long time the only way to get water into the house was from a pump just outside the kitchen door…

No plumbing meant no toilet. At night we used a chamber pot but during the day we had to trek to the outhouse. That was not a pleasant place to go…

Grampa had a Swiss milk cow named Boss. All his cows were named Boss. He would amble out to the pasture and call ‘Here Boss.’ She would usually be waiting for him…The barn cats would line up against the wall and wait for a squirt of milk.

In 1948 it seemed like their house was way out in the country, but today [2010] the city of Manhattan, Kansas, surrounds the property. To this day nothing has been built on that property. Except for where the house was (it burned down in the ‘80s), the rest of the property is a flood plain.

Wildcat Creek runs in a horseshoe around the property…Mom and Dad would take Nancy and me fishing. The water was clear and cold. On still summer nights I could hear from my bedroom window the bubbling of the stream along with the loud chirping of frogs and an occasional owl. On a cliff overlooking the whole expanse of the farm was a zoo. A little girl’s imagination could run wild dreaming about the wild animal sounds that could be heard drifting down from that cliff – lions, elephants, peacocks and the like…

The following three and one-half minute clip is from 8mm film my father took in the late 1930s on a trip to the Irwin family farm in Manhattan, Kansas. Appearing in the video are: my grandparents, Mother’s sister Alice and husband Bill, Mother’s brother Bill and wife Wilma, Mother’s sister Lora (sitting on porch).

 

Patsy also said she remembers: lying in the hay in the top of the barn and looking through the cracks in the sides, the smell of the dusty hay, cherry trees in the garden, listening to the swallows chortle, picking and eating cherries until she was nearly sick, tomatoes as big as soft balls, sweet corn “standing tall like soldiers marching down the rows keeping order in the garden” (as she put it), abundant yellow butterflies in the summer and catching fireflies in a jar and watching them sparkle ‘til she drifted off to sleep.

My own vague recollections of the farm include the outside water pump, the smell of the water, a relatively large dark living room, and the tiny interior water closet. The thought of spiders in the water closet frightened me, as did pulling the chain to flush the tank high on the wall above the toilet for fear it would fall on me. The bathroom fixtures were fairly new, but it all seemed very old and creepy to me. The only thing in the kitchen I can remember is the wood burning cook stove (I have a miniature replica of it), and the outside well water, which was eventually pumped into the kitchen and dispensed with a hand pump. I remember a dark, rickety, narrow, steep staircase but not much about the two bedrooms upstairs that they led to. My sisters and I slept in the back room of the old farm house. At certain times of the year, my sister Nancy spent hours sitting on a bed in that back room polishing with butter some kind of bean-like seeds she collected outside. (I think it was butter.) I slept on what I assume was Daddy’s army cot, which we used often, even at home when we had overnight guests. That back room was frigid in the winter, but a wood-burning pot-bellied stove stood in the middle of the room and kept the room at a cozy temperature until the fire burned out, but by then we were fast asleep.

Mother’s memories of home:

I remember the hikes in the hills with Dad to cut a Christmas tree each year. Mother would phone the Rosencutters to get permission. Every Fourth of July there was a picnic in Walnut Grove and we kids shot off firecrackers. If it rained we’d go to the basement and sit under the house overhang and shoot our “lady-fingers” there.

After I left home I always looked forward to the visits home. I’d eat breakfast with Mother and Dad at the cluttered breakfast table and watch birds at the window feeder. Breakfast was home-made bread toast made on the hot coal-and-wood stove and a fresh brown egg. Dad always had hot oats sugared and creamed, egg and toast, and “larrupins.”

“Larrupins.” I’m not sure what that means. I looked it up, and I’m still not sure specifically what it means. My best guess here is that it means something (anything) really tasty.

Mother wrote later in life that she learned how to swim in Wildcat Creek and once, when it flooded, her mother took her in a row boat way up the flooded creek. Patsy told me that Mother didn’t like living on the farm and couldn’t wait to get away from it.