Constance Cowan, 87, of Duluth, Minn., examines a dog tag Aug. 2 that belonged to her brother, James, who died in the Philippines during World War II. The dog tag was found by a tour guide on the island of Corregidor, where James served during World War II. (Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune via AP)
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DULUTH, MINN. — A dog tag belonging to a soldier who died during World War II has finally been returned to his sister in Duluth — nearly 70 years later.
“It doesn’t really register,” Constance Cowan told the Duluth News Tribune. “It takes time. Here’s a dog tag he actually touched. I never dreamed something like this could happen.”
Constance Cowan’s brother, James Cowan, had been stationed in the Philippines on Corregidor island during World War II.
Air strikes and heavy artillery from the Japanese eventually led to the Allies surrendering the island, the last stronghold as Japan took over the Philippines. James Cowan became a prisoner of war in 1942.
In December 1944, he was boarded on the Oryoku Maru ship. Like many of the Japanese POW ships, it was unmarked. Prisoners were put in the holds and Japanese military and civilians on the upper decks. American air forces attacked the ship and 200 POWs were killed. Cowan was reported lost at sea.
His tag ended up in the hands of a tour guide on the island, Armando Hildawa, who said he got it as a thank-you gift. Artifacts from the war often surface after the rainy season, though dog tags are a rare find these days.
He later gave it to an American tourist, Brandon Ainsworth, who vowed to return it. He found James Cowan’s sister — the only person alive in her immediate family — by scouring family records and sent the tags last month, along with a letter of appreciation.
The American military cemetery in Manila holds more than 17,000 soldiers and 36,000 names, including James Cowan’s name. His body was never found.
She said she was 4 and he was 9 when their mother died in childbirth. She went to live with relatives while her brother stayed with his dad on a farm near Windom, in southern Minnesota. It was the Great Depression.
He eventually went to work on a farm in Iowa. In January 1941, at 21, James Cowan enlisted in the Army.
Cowan said her brother needed to join the fight. The military was a way to “stabilize” his life, she said. It was something to take him away from hard work and his motherless childhood. He had dropped out of high school.
She said she was grateful to know that people still cared about what happened to her brother.