Arden A. Rowley, 83, is seen at his home in Mesa, Ariz. A memorial to those lost in the Korean War sits in the background next to his flagpole. (Arden Rowley via USA Today)
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Some ex-soldiers, after surviving combat and concentration camps, spend their remaining years trying to forget. Arden Rowley preserves his memories in books.
“A guy right next to me died,” recalled the 82-year-old Korean War veteran from Mesa, Ariz. “What’s that line: ‘Between me and him, why did I survive and he did not?’... I want to remember every second of it because, if I forget, then I’m dishonoring every one of the hundreds who died in those camps.”
Rowley signed with the Army in 1948, an 18-year-old kid who was looking to become a mechanic and see the world. He was sent to Okinawa after basic training, then transferred back to the States as war broke out. Three weeks later, he was on a ship to Korea.
Rowley said he started as a chauffeur for a platoon leader, driving a jeep through combat zones from Busan along the country’s southern edge nearly to the Yalu River in the north. The 2nd Engineer Combat Battalion, normally assigned to construction work, was forced into battle three times in the early months, he said. Then, as enemy soldiers swarmed from the north in November 1950, Rowley’s unit got trapped in the 2nd Infantry Division’s rear guard.
“The Chinese were on top of us, all around us, everywhere,” he recalled. A retreat through mountain passes was blocked, so soldiers abandoned their convoy and tried to escape on foot in subzero temperatures. Rowley said he and a sergeant soon encountered troops that they mistakenly thought were South Korean.
“I had a submachine gun and the sergeant had a couple hand grenades, but we let them get too close,” he said. “They just surrounded the two of us.”
They marched 24 nights with other POWs through snowstorms to a place called “Death Valley,” Rowley said. Stragglers were shot, so able-bodied soldiers carried the sick and wounded.
At the camp, dysentery, starvation and cold took nearly 300 comrades in a few weeks.
As Rowley slides deeper into the past, his eyes glisten, his voice breaks. He was incarcerated 33 months in five camps. POWs got a bowl of millet or cracked corn each morning. They slept on floors, filthy and infested with lice.
Frozen corpses were stacked up for burial. Survivors endured mind-numbing indoctrination classes, day after week after month. And then it was over. Rowley came home to Arizona. He said his life was defined by the war, and by a young woman named Ruth, whom he met within weeks and eventually married.
Rowley worked 31 years as a Mesa high school educator. He served in the Arizona National Guard for 18 years until his retirement as a major in 1974. He became a great-grandfather. But he never let go of the past.
For years, Rowley said, he was moody, angry at his Chinese captors and bitter at America’s indifference or neglect for soldiers of a “forgotten war.”
In 1983, his wife persuaded him to attend a Korean War veterans reunion in Ohio, where he realized he was not alone. The Rowleys returned for 27 consecutive years until Ruth’s illness and death in 2011. Each gathering seemed like therapy for post-traumatic stress. Rowley began researching and writing about the war and the prison camps. His moods mellowed. He self-published four books and plans to release a fifth this summer in honor of the 60th anniversary of the armistice.
Rowley’s home is a veritable museum of war photographs and memorabilia. He pulls out a giant, hand-drawn map of Korea depicting where he fought, got captured and was imprisoned. A few years ago, he served as grand marshal of the Phoenix Veterans Parade. He is historian for the Korean War Ex-POW Association. Each Memorial Day, Rowley and others gather around his front-yard plaque and flowers commemorating those who didn’t make it home.
“It’s one of those million-dollar experiences,” he said of the war. “You wouldn’t go through it again for a million dollars, but you wouldn’t take a million dollars for it, either. I think it strengthened me.”
Wagner also reports for The Arizona Republic.