By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
Ralph Lower remembers the exact date — even the hour — he earned his wings.
At 93, the Everett man occasionally forgets a name or some minor detail. He’ll never forget his duty as a World War II flier.
A Spokane native, he joined the Army in August 1941. By the time Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, he was in flight training at California’s Moffett Airfield.
“They issued us rifles, and we had to patrol around the airport,” he said. Training took him to three bases before he mastered advanced flying.
“I graduated, got my wings, at 10 a.m. March 16, 1942 — my wings and my second lieutenant bars,” he said in a phone call from Thousand Palms, Calif. Lower and his wife June spend winters in the Palm Springs suburb.
Assigned to the 12th Bomb Group in Louisiana, the young man would soon be overseas with the U.S. Army’s 9th Air Force, flying a B-25 Mitchell bomber in North Africa. He landed in Egypt, at an old British airport that had been turned over to the Americans. “Then they moved us out into the desert. They scraped off a place with bulldozers, that was our airstrip,” Lower said.
Between July 1942 and September 1943, Lower and his crew flew an impressive 52 bombing missions in a B-25 nicknamed the “Desert Warrior.”
They lent air support to help the British 8th Army in their desert push against commander Erwin Rommel’s German forces. By May 1943, Axis forces were defeated in North Africa.
“When we were supporting the British army, coming across the desert, as they advanced they’d build us another airfield. We were always up close to the front. When they called for help, we were there,” he said.
Lower, who spent 20 years in the Air Force and retired as a lieutenant colonel, began as a co-pilot and became the first pilot. The B-25 carried a crew of five. “There were two pilots, a bombardier-navigator, and two gunners,” he said.
Bombing missions were flown at altitudes of 7,000 to 10,000 feet. The B-25 was a “fairly low bomber,” Lower said, compared with the B-17 that flew as high as 30,000 feet. Missions often lasted little more than an hour. There were tense moments in those hours aloft.
“German anti-aircraft guns were very accurate. We would come home with holes in our plane almost every mission,” Lower said. “The plane picked up holes, and we’d patch them when we got back. If you were lucky, you didn’t get hit.”
Early on in the war, Lower said crews were rotated home after 25 missions. “Then it was 50 missions. Then there was no certain amount, until the flight surgeon felt you just couldn’t do it. I got 52 missions in,” he said.
Lower’s wartime overseas was done, but not his war effort. “The day they raided Italy, I came home,” Lower said.
He flew the “Desert Warrior” back to the States. With a crew from other units, he toured the country in the B-25. At every stop, they were welcomed as heroes as they coaxed people to buy war bonds to support the fight.
“We went to Oklahoma, Kansas, Wyoming and ended up in Bakersfield (Calif.),” Lower said. “We visited gasoline refineries that were under construction. We’d put the airplane on display and talk to the workers building refineries, telling them how badly we needed that gasoline overseas.”
Before going to war in 1942, he had married his first wife, Clydena. She was from Everett, and in 1957 the couple bought their home here. Still in the military after the war, Lower spent four years at the Pentagon, from 1950 to 1954. His military career took him back to Africa, to Morocco, to check navigation at U.S. and NATO bases.
Lower was featured in a 2007 Herald article as the Everett Yacht Club’s oldest active member, when the club marked its 100th anniversary. A boat owner for years, Lower was the club’s commodore in 1982.
His daughter Sandy Raguso, of Bainbridge Island, said her father doesn’t talk much about the war. Sometimes he wears a hat that says “World War II veteran,” she said.
“People comment on it, and say ‘Thank you for serving,’ ” Raguso said.
Lower hopes Americans understand the sacrifices made by veterans, those of his generation and all who served.
“I actually think we should induct all the 18-year-olds, for a couple years, to have that training. It would be good for the young men — and women — today,” Lower said. “Looking back, it was a very good experience for me, since I survived.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, firstname.lastname@example.org.