Corregidor POW Survivor
Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist
Roland Kenneth (Ken) Towery was born in 1923 in Smithville, Mississippi. The following year his family moved to Texas where Ken grew up on a farm in Willacy County near Raymondville. In 1937 they moved near San Antonio where they farmed land on the Medina River. On his eighteenth birthday, Ken enlisted in the Army. He says, I wanted to see the world and signed up asking for service as far away from home as the Army could send me.
Ken Towery was inducted at Fort Sam Houston, Texas on January 26, 1941. After a brief delay enroute at Angels Island in San Francisco bay, he sailed on the troop ship, USS Republic, on March 31, 1941 and arrived in the Philippines on April 22nd. Ken was assigned to Battery C, 60th Coast Artillery (Anti-Aircraft) on Corregidor Island in Manila Bay, where he received his basic and advanced individual training and served as a member of the crew of a 75mm anti-aircraft gun.
In 1941 the nation was building up the military in anticipation of the outbreak of war and the troops in the field were aware of the increasing international tensions. Ken says that the men in his unit moved out of the barracks 6-weeks before the war started. The crews slept by their guns and they had orders to fire on any aircraft overflying the island. Pan American Airlines was warned and their Clipper flights avoided Corregidor. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, Ken Towery had been in the hospital recovering from injuries from a few days before, but he was quickly back with his battery.
Ken says, During the defense of the Bataan Peninsula, the big guns of the 59th Coast Artillery on Corregidor blocked the Japanese Navy from getting into Manila Bay, and our anti-aircraft guns (of the 60th Coast Artillery) protected the big guns from being knocked out by Japanese air attacks. That worked pretty well until Bataan fell on April 9th (1942), after which the enemy artillery went into position along the beach only two to three miles from Corregidor. I was wounded on May 6th just shortly before General Wainwright surrendered later that same day. I was manning a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) on a point defending our position when the Japanese started walking the artillery up towards us. I received fragmentation wounds in an arm and a leg from a shell burst that also killed several of the men near me. Later, a Filipino Medic removed shell fragments from my elbow and leg.
We stayed on Corregidor for several weeks as prisoners, burying the dead and cleaning up the island. We were then moved by ship to Manila, some 20-30 miles away, and marched through the city down Dewey Boulevard so the Japanese could show us off as their prisoners to the Philippine civilian population. They kept us overnight in Bilibid Prison. The next day we were loaded into boxcars and moved by train to Cabanatuan where we were marched to the newly constructed camp #3 on the Pampanga River.
After about four months in Cabanatuan Camp #3, Ken Towery was among a group of prisoners shipped out in October 1942. Ken remembers sailing from Manila harbors pier #7 in an old ship that the Japanese had captured at Singapore. It still had signs printed in English all around the ship. After stops in Formosa and Kobe, Japan, they arrived in Fuson, Korea and from there were moved to Mukden, Manchuria. When he arrived, he was so seriously ill with tuberculosis and pneumonia that he was unable to walk. It was an extended period before he was well enough to join the other prisoners working in the MKK factory. Working in the factory was a good thing because the prison labor force was served a substantial nutritious lunch, whereas the food in the prison camp itself was always inadequate.
Ken was in a work crew of six or seven men in the MKK factory who took apart tool and die making equipment and, after the Japanese made blueprints of the components, they reassembled the machines which were then shipped elsewhere and placed into service. The men in Kens crew had gotten to know a Chinese laborer in the factory and they worked out a business arrangement with him. They hid the bearings from some of the machines they took apart, and then reassembled the machinery minus the bearings. Their Chinese friend smuggled in eggs and other food items to trade for the bearings which could then be put to use by the Chinese. Of course, the industrial machinery wasnt much good to the Japanese without bearings, but they never caught on to what was happening.
After Japan surrendered four very brave Americans (a Chinese-American, a Japanese-American, and two Caucasians), parachuted in to take charge of the care for the prisoners. They brought copies of the Emperors surrender message with them, but in the confusion of the moment, the Japanese guards took the men prisoner anyway. The Russian Army soon came in and took over and Ken says, The Russian commander made an insulting speech to us newly-freed prisoners that offended everyone. The Russians were suspicious of everything and it was September 9, 1945 before they let us sail from Port Arthur. We arrived in Okinawa just ahead of a storm and had to go back out to sea to ride out a big typhoon. After a day or two on Okinawa we ex-prisoners were flown to the Philippines. I was on a C-47 transport aircraft, but many others were flown out on bombers. I dont know if it is true or not, but there was a story that some Dutch ex-prisoners were being flown out in one of the bombers and the bomb bay doors opened by some accident and fourteen men fell to their deaths.
Ken Towery sailed for home on October 10, 1945, arrived in San Francisco on November 1st and went into Letterman General Hospital. He was moved, one last time, by train to Brooke Army Hospital in San Antonio. He was still suffering from tuberculosis and could not be discharged from the Army until July 21, 1946 when tests proved that both his lungs were clear of infection. From that time on, he would travel to Waco every three months for testing and he would spend a total of five years in the hospital undergoing treatment for tuberculosis.
Towery entered Southwest Texas Junior College in Uvalde in 1946 as the first student enrolled in the history of that new school that was being opened on what had been an old Army Air Field. Ken could also live there on campus and after school could conveniently walk the short three miles into town. While a student at SWTJC, he met Louise Cook, of Knippa, Texas. They married on May 4, 1947. After graduation in Uvalde, Ken enrolled at Texas A&M. Unfortunately one of his TB tests came up positive again and he had to drop out of A&M in November 1949. According to the rules, he could not enroll again until he could prove to the VA that he possessed work-tolerance. To demonstrate his work-tolerance he got a job as a reporter with the newspaper in Cuero, Texas. That chance happening changed his life.
Working on that South Texas newspaper, Ken Towery discovered fraud and corruption in the Texas Veterans Land Program and published a series of articles exposing that scandal in the Cuero Daily Record in 1954. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1955 for that body of work, and he spent another year in the VA hospital in Kerrville being treated for TB again. In 1956 he joined the Capitol Staff of Newspapers Inc., in Austin, Texas, covering state government and politics.
In 1963 he went to Washington, D.C. to work as Press Secretary for Senator John Tower and later served the senator as aide and administrative assistant. In 1968 he managed President Nixons Texas campaign during that presidential election. For the next seven years he was Deputy Director and Assistant Director of the United States Information Agency (USIA). Following that, he returned home to Austin in 1976. In 1981 he was appointed by President Reagan (and confirmed by the Senate) to the Board of Directors of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He served ten years as a member of the Board and was twice elected Chairman of the Board.
In addition to his government service, Ken has been the publisher of four newspapers in Texas the Belton Journal, Lockney Beacon, Crosbyton Review, and the Floyd County Hesperian in Floydada. He currently owns the Floyd County Hesperian-Beacon which is published by his daughter, Alice Gilroy.
During his career he also served for a time as assistant to the Chancellor of the University of Texas System; he has been in business partnership with Blythe, Nelson, Newton & Towery, a political consulting firm; and he has written his memoirs, a book entitled, The Chow Dipper, published by Eakin Press, which deals with the siege of Corregidor, the prison camp years that followed, and his experiences that resulted in his Pulitzer Prize.
Ken and Louise Towery live in Austin, they have two children and four grandchildren. One of their grandsons is a Marine reservist who has recently served a tour in Iraq.
Ken Towery passed away on May 4, 2016 and will be interned at the Texas State Cemetery.