A hero's tale is told 50 years later Dying navigator saved B-17's crew

October 15, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- Don Rowley had died in World War II; that much his old classmates knew. But how? They hadn't a clue.

And that he had been a hero in his final moments of life -- well, it would take them a half-century to learn the details.

He was an Army Air Force navigator based in England when his B-17 Flying Fortress, nicknamed the "Lazy Baby," was shot down by Nazi fighters. Second Lt. Donald Rowley died in the attack. That's all that filtered back to the hometown crowd.

But that was before this month, when a Swiss manufacturing executive named Jean-Pierre Wilhelm got involved.

As an 11-year-old schoolboy living in the tiny village of Ettingen, Switzerland, Mr. Wilhelm had seen the last moments of the Lazy Baby.

But as he grew up, Mr. Wilhelm all but forgot the incident. Until 1988, that is, when his mother died. In her attic he found a scrapbook with local stories of the crash.

He began to research the lives of the Lazy Baby's 10 American crewmen, getting American military records and tracking down the survivors. Soon he was lecturing to his countrymen about the crash he had witnessed on the sunny Thursday afternoon of Oct. 14, 1943. Then he began writing articles about it.

This month, an excerpt of one of Wilhelm's articles appeared in Reader's Digest. Donald Rowley's buddies were astounded by what they read:

The 22-year-old had been at his navigator's post in the nose of the Lazy Baby when the front of the plane was blasted apart by Nazi fire, which also knocked out three of the bomber's four engines.

Both of Mr. Rowley's muscular arms were virtually blown off. Despite his injuries, he struggled up in to the co-pilot's seat in the cockpit. And as he slowly bled to death, Mr. Rowley saved the rest of the crew by doggedly guiding the plane out of Germany and flying at treetop level through Swiss mountain valleys until he found a flat place where the Lazy Baby could put down.

Though Mr. Rowley's widow got a Silver Star in his name, no one knew if she realized the extent of his heroism. She died several years ago, Mildred Skelley, a friend, said.

Mr. Rowley's friends gathered yesterday at the lobby of Hamilton High School to commemorate their classmate's heroism. They were also launching a scholarship drive in the hero's memory.

Although a half-century in coming, the account of Mr. Rowley's death was still emotional to the crowd of 45 who watched as a wreath of blue irises was placed in the lobby.

Mr. Wilhelm was unable to attend. He was in Ettingen, placing his own blue-blossomed wreath on a tree branch at the crash site.

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