By Rikki King Herald Writer
LYNNWOOD — Some of his missions stand out.
After 70 years, others have grown faint.
Bob Mower flew fighter planes on the front lines in Europe during World War II. His squadron provided cover for Gen. George Patton’s Fourth Armored Division. He was flying the day Germany surrendered.
Mower, now 90, lives in a senior home on a hillside just north of Lynnwood. The walls of his office are decorated with depictions of all the planes he flew, in training and in the war. A bookshelf keeps photos of several generations of his family. A display case holds medals, ribbons and a clipping from the newspaper in Sioux Falls, S.D., as he neared completion of his 84 combat missions.
Mower grew up in Huron, S.D. His father owned an auto repair shop and gas station, where gas sold for 12 cents a gallon. Growing up, he liked to fish, hunt rabbits and play baseball and football. His father died when he was 14. His mother ran the business and raised the kids. He owes a lot of his success to her, he said.
As the war started, Mower was in engineering college. He wasn’t doing too well at his studies, and he worried about losing his educational deferment from the draft. He didn’t want to be in the infantry, he said.
He and some classmates went to the recruitment office. At the time, Mower had never been out of South Dakota. Over the next few years, his service in the Air Force would take him throughout the U.S. and Europe.
As a kid, Mower built model airplanes and hung out at the local airport, he said. He thought he might like to fly. He signed up with an aviation cadet program in November 1942.
He was told to expect a six-month backlog before he got summoned for duty. He hoped to finish his degree in that time.
“Two months later, they called me up,” he said.
In January 1943, Mower was sent to an Army post at Jefferson Barracks in Missouri. Army officials there weren’t sure what to do with the aviation cadets, he said.
“We spent a lot of time marching, marching to chow hall, marching back, drills, marching, marching, marching,” he said. “This was in February, mind you, and it was cold.”
He went to ground school in California, then flight school near Phoenix, and around the country for additional pilot training. He got his wings and graduated on April 15, 1944.
In combat, Mower flew Republic P-47 Thunderbolts, a single-engine, single-pilot fighter aircraft, “one of the most advanced models for its time,” he said.
Mower moved around some more. He waited. Eventually, he was put on a passenger ship that had been converted into a troop carrier.
In England, he and others received additional training from pilots who had just finished their tours of duty. He was assigned to the 379th Fighter Squadron within the 362nd Fighter Group. His group was nicknamed “Mogin’s Maulers.”
They were based near Reims, France, where he flew his first combat mission. The pilots used temporary air strips, moving as Patton’s troops advanced.
“We had to pick up and move so we didn’t use all the gas getting to the front line,” Mower said. “When his troops would take off, we’d fly cover over them.”
At the time, providing ground troops with air support was a new concept, Mower said.
The pilots looked for enemy troops ahead. They also made sure the Nazis couldn’t circle around the troops and attack from behind.
“It was a job that we had been trained to do,” he said. “It was just there and we were there to do it, and I don’t think we thought too much beyond it.”
Between missions, they often waited in tents, he said. They slept on cots in sleeping bags, ready to move. In their downtime, they read, they played bridge, maybe a game of softball in a vacant field when possible, he said.
“There wasn’t a whole lot we could do,” he said. “Winter weather over there wasn’t all that pleasant.”
Mower remembers two missions in particular — one that went right, and one that didn’t.
Once, during takeoff, Mower was just starting lift off when the plane’s control stick snapped over, into his right knee. The plane started to flip. He jammed the control stick back.
Mower heard the control tower order another pilot to steer clear of him. At first, he didn’t realize that one of the two 500-pound bombs had dropped from his plane onto the runway.
“It was a scary experience, but mainly it was scary after the fact because I didn’t have time to react to what it was,” he said.
Another memory is from the Battle of the Bulge, the bloody German offensive that cost the lives of many Allied soldiers. Mower’s squadron was grounded by fog the first days of the attack. The battle lasted from Dec. 16, 1944, through Jan. 25, 1945.
At 5 a.m. one day, someone rapped on the pilots’ door. The skies were clear. They loaded up for the 10-minute flight to Bastogne, Belgium. They caught a convoy of German gasoline tankers heading up switchbacks, out of a canyon and toward the Allied troops.
The Germans’ “objective was to move so fast to get to the coast that they didn’t bring their antiaircraft guns with them,” Mower said. In addition to bombs, his squadron’s planes each carried eight 50-caliber machine guns, four in each wing. The guns fired simultaneously, he said.
In their own way, the flames were beautiful, he said.
Mower’s service earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and 14 Air Medals, among other distinctions. He destroyed more than 300 Nazi military vehicles, according to news clippings at the time.
Mower left the Air Force as a first lieutenant in October 1945. He married his fiance, Shirley, and got a degree in chemical engineering. For a time, he worked as the chief chemist at the state-owned South Dakota Cement Plant.
Mower kept his eyes on a job with the DuPont chemical company and eventually was hired. He worked for the company 32 years, becoming a chemical plant manager in northern California.
He and Shirley raised two boys, both of whom went to college.
After the war, life wasn’t easy, he said. The couple spent the first few months of their marriage in a motel, then a rental. After he got the DuPont job, they “resumed what you would call a reasonably normal life,” he said.
“The G.I. Bill of course was a big help, but life was pretty basic for several years following the war,” he said. “You didn’t enjoy too many luxuries. Our entertainment for several years was television.”
Mower retired from DuPont in 1984. His wife, Shirley, died in 1995, three months before their 50th anniversary.
In 1998, Mower married Patricia, a woman from Seattle. In recent years, Patricia Mower was diagnosed with dementia. She lives at a separate care facility. Still, the sign on his front door says “Bob + Pat.” He hopes to move her closer soon, when his home adds services she needs, he said.
“We can’t be together, but at least she can be where I can keep an eye on her, manage her affairs and see that she’s taken care of,” he said.
These days, Mower likes to rearrange his new space, trying to get everything right. Some of his former neighbors from Edmonds live at the same place.
Mower keeps a meticulous calendar on the kitchen counter. The home is neat.
Birds fly in art on the walls, and his plane drawings and miniatures decorate his office. Patricia Mower liked birds, he said. He liked planes.
Mower goes to the Edmonds Library, and he reads a lot, he said. He tries to keep himself healthy, so he walks.
“It’s good for me,” he said. “I don’t walk very fast at 90, but I do walk.”
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; firstname.lastname@example.org.