Call him an observer of history. An up-close observer.
Jim Bowra has seen a lot in his 87 years. From the battles of World War II to the protests and espionage of the Cold War, he’s been around a few of the 20th century’s most important world events.
He traveled an estimated hundreds of thousands of miles on a ship in the South Pacific, and lived in Europe when U.S. nuclear missiles were placed there. He drove a truck loaded with unstable explosives.
But these days, the hard working Four Corners native leads a simpler life. You’ll find him at Durango Community Recreation Center three mornings each week. He calls it his social life. He may chat a bit during his hour or two, but he doesn’t leave without breaking a sweat.
He gets some ribbing from the regulars at the rec center.
“All he does is clog the machines,” jokes Bill Palmer as he passes Bowra and heads downstairs.
His friend, Mike McGuire, is jealous because the girls talk to Bowra but won’t talk to him. Kidding aside, there’s a deep, underlying respect.
“A real inspiration,” McGuire said. “A neat, neat guy. He has lots of stories.”
Bowra was born in Aztec, the son of a Brit who emigrated to the United States in 1903 and a mother who was an Aztec native.
His father owned a weekly newspaper in Aztec, which leads Bowra to explain why he’s not that fond of turkey. Back in the 1920s and ’30s, subscribers would pay their bills with poultry. “One year, we got seven turkeys” during Christmas.
He played sports and after returning from the war tried to walk on to the New Mexico Highlands football team.
“God, that’s a rough sport. I hurt in places I didn’t even know I had,” he said during a break in his routine on the rec center’s second-floor machines. Bowra determined quickly it wasn’t for him. “It became real obvious I was the tackling dummy.”
Before college came his military stint. At 17, before graduating from high school, in February 1943, he joined the Navy Armed Guard. He served as a gunner on a “Liberty” ship, one of 2,700 built quickly during America’s frenetic war buildup. The 441-foot-long Liberty ships were used to transport food and materiel to soldiers, and were manned by 40 merchant mariners and 30 Navy gunners. The range was 21,000 miles, and by Bowra’s account, some of their cross-Pacific trips along the equator approached that distance.
On one trip, an enemy submarine torpedoed a tanker traveling alongside. The tanker, with 7 million gallons of fuel, sank in 30 seconds, Bowra recalls. All the men aboard perished. It took the slow-maneuvering Robert J. Walker an hour to turn around and reach the site.
“We couldn’t even find the wreckage from it,” Bowra said.
Trips during his 33 months of service took him to New Guinea, Australia, the Philippines, Saipan, the Admiralty Islands and Guam, to name a few spots. It was in Guam, where his ship had just delivered a load of fuel, where he saw something that later made him realize his role in history.
“It was down at the end of the hangars,” Bowra recalls. “Nobody was allowed down there. They had the (military police) thick. And nobody knew what it was.”
The B-29 bomber Enola Gay spent about three weeks on Guam, undergoing modifications before flying to Tinian in the Northern Mariana Islands. On Aug. 6, 1945, it was used to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
“I think we took the fuel for the Enola Gay,” Bowra said.
A few days after the atomic bombs were detonated, Bowra’s ship was north of Iwo Jima, heading toward Okinawa, and he was performing maintenance on his gun. An officer told him to take a break and go listen to the radio.
“No, I’ve gotta get this gun back on the firing line,” Bowra replied.
“Well, do I have to order you?” the officer asked.
He would need the gun no longer. The war was over.
Before college, Bowra worked in the oil fields for a year, drilling holes and dropping in explosives for seismograph tests that would determine whether oil might be found.
“I got 75 cents an hour to drive around in a truck with nitroglycerin,” he said with a hearty laugh.
Bowra used a degree in printing to help run the family paper. He left the business in the 1960s, returned to college and earned a counseling degree. That eventually led him to jobs with the Department of Defense at U.S. bases in Korea and Europe. His role as senior education officer was to operate high school and college programs for the soldiers.
He and his wife, Bernice, moved to Germany in 1980, just when the U.S. was establishing nuclear missiles there. The missiles’ presence upset many Germans, and some caused a ruckus.
“We had protesters, up over 5,000 daily,” Bowra said. “I had to go to work in a convoy. And these protesters would stand there and kick your car. ... Almost every night we lost a jeep. They set fire to it or poured blood on it or something of that nature.”
A group of left-wing Germany terrorists, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, tried unsuccessfully in 1981 to assassinate Gen. Frederick Kroesen with a bazooka as he drove past in an armed Mercedes.
“I never felt safe,” during the time in Europe, Bowra said. He still feels badly that Bernice was tear-gassed on a couple of occasions.
His day-to-day existence isn’t so hair-raising these days. There are no submarines sneaking up, no kamikaze pilots targeting him, no terrorist gangs kicking his car. Just his fellow rec center iron-pumpers, bombarding him with equal parts caustic wit and admiration.
firstname.lastname@example.org. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.