"(The Navy) flowed in his blood till the end": WWII vet who earned dozens of medals dies at 95
THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT |
JUL 25, 2017 | 8:00 AM
Charles Howse was a Navy ball turret gunner during World War II. Pictured here in the early 1940s. (Courtesy photo)
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In the early summer of 1944, Charles Wesley Howse was on the verge of death after his Navy plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, leaving him and other crew members stranded on a rubber life raft amid raging seas.
"My job in just such an occasion was to get the life raft out which I did ... the plane was sinking nose first," Howse recalled in a 2009 letter. He rescued the pilot from the cockpit and waited for a nearby ship where "after we were pulled on board they gave us a shot of whiskey, which caused me to throw up the sea water I had swallowed," he wrote.
The close call was one of many in World War II.
Two years earlier, another plane Howse was on was hit by ground fire during a North African mission, forcing the crew to walk through enemy territory to safety.
Howse, who died July 15 at 95, ultimately served two more decades and was awarded 23 Air Medals and seven Distinguished Flying Crosses.
He later told his children he was just doing his job.
A decorated career
Howse was born on Oct. 3, 1921 in the Wesleyville community of Newfoundland in Canada, which gave him his middle name. He was raised in Cambridge, Mass., where he met his wife of 73 years, Elizabeth McKenzie, at a USO dance.
He enlisted in the Navy in 1942 as a 1st class machinist's mate and worked as a ball turret gunner during the war, meaning he was scrunched up in the bottom of the aircraft.
Later that year came the first close call. It was Operation Torch, the joint U.S. and British invasion of North Africa, and Howse was aboard the USS Santee.
His squadron was assigned to help General George S. Patton, whose troops and tanks were held up by ground fortifications, Howse recalled in the 2009 letter.
While bombing, "our plane was hit by ground fire and we had to use our parachutes to save our lives," he wrote. "We had a printed card in Arabic which stated that anyone who guided us to safety would be rewarded."
A man with a camel gestured to them, and they followed, Howse wrote. They walked for hours in enemy territory – Howse with a sprained ankle.
The incident qualified him for the so-called Caterpillar Club for people who've successfully parachuted out of a disabled aircraft. He also made the less-than-desirable Sea Squatters Club, meaning he had been a "sitting duck" awaiting rescue. That was in June 1944, when his plane crashed returning from an anti-submarine patrol.
His Squatters Club certification indicates he was out at sea on a rubber life raft for 15 minutes in the North Atlantic.
There were other harrowing air missions, too.
In 1943, he was part of a crew called on to investigate a report of a surfaced sub. Howse's plane attacked, but the sub "did more damage to us than we did to him," he wrote.
"It sure was interesting to see the black holes appearing on the top of the wing when their bullets came through," he said. "The pilot got an Air Medal for this and the crew got zilch."
He didn't boast about these war stories to his children, and they didn't learn of them for some time.
He was "one of those guys that when you sat there and said, 'You're amazing,' he said, 'I was just doing what I was told, and did it to the best of my ability,'" said his son, Steven Howse, 64.
A 1945 letter to Charles Howse from then-Navy Secretary James Forrestal – for which the USS Forrestal was later named – said: "I want the Navy's pride in you, which it is my privilege to express, to reach into your civil life and to remain with you always."
Howse took a break from the Navy in 1946 and worked briefly as an air conditioning mechanic at a Boston hospital. He returned to the Navy in 1948 and served through 1966. He was occasionally stationed around the world, including Iceland. Howse retired as an aviation mechanic's mate 1st class.
He was honored in 2005 at the first Patriotic Festival in Virginia Beach.
"(The Navy) flowed in his blood till the end," Steven said.
The other passion in Charles Howse's life was his family.
After his first stint in the Navy, he and his wife bought a house in Norfolk near Coleman Place Elementary School for around $5,000, and raised a son and five daughters.
"Never a dull moment," said daughter Susan Falk, 58.
They had a chicken coop and a trapeze bar in the backyard, and the home was a gathering place for neighborhood kids to play, she said.
But every evening, "you got a whistle and your butt better be there 'cause at 5:30 you were sitting down for dinner."
Sometimes, he'd use a different, special whistle, said his daughter Jan Martin, 72.
"If we were out playing when he came home and whistled for us with the special whistle, he took us to the beach and we had a great time," she said. "There wasn't anything he wouldn't do for a kid."
Falk said the Navy stories came out piece by piece over many years.
"As little kids it was 'Oh, it's just dumb old dad,' you know," she said. "And then as an adult you finally realize how much he has sacrificed himself for this country."
His children appreciate how he kept the family in Norfolk while he traveled for assignments.
But he always gave his wife the credit for keeping the house and family together, they said. The spouses communicated by cassette tapes while he was away.
After the Navy in 1966, Howse got a job with Pilot Life Insurance, where he worked for decades until retiring. He personally delivered documents to clients and always sent them birthday cards with a stick of gum.
People would run into him at the grocery store and "they would always thank him for that stick of gum," Steven said.
"He was one of those guys that said what he meant and meant what he said. (He had) a very, very strong BS meter. He could tell within 15 seconds whether someone was telling the truth."
Later in life, he went on cruises with his wife around Hawaii and through the Panama Canal, and visited his six children, 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
He was someone you could count on, said grandson Wesley Falk, 28.
"Every big moment in my life he was there or already knew about it. He tried to be there for whatever I needed."
Howse's family moved years ago to the Bromley neighborhood near Norfolk International Airport, where he served for a time on the civic league's board of directors.
He was also a senior warden at St. Peter's Episcopal Church on Military Highway and Church of the Epiphany on Lafayette Boulevard, and a lifelong member at several organizations, including the Order of the Eastern Star and the Fleet Reserve Association.
Elizabeth Howse died last year at 94.
The only time Steven remembers his father truly choking up is when he would talk about her after her death.
"He'd talk about 'my sweetheart,'" Steven said.
Even to a waitress whom he didn't know, he'd recount never going to bed without a kiss at night.
Though he was still "sharp as a tack" until the end, his family knew he wanted to be reunited with his wife, Falk said, "and go dancing once again."