Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-part series from Longview’s Dr. John Coppedge, who grew up in Cuero, where he first became aware of the remarkable life story of Ken Towery, former Japanese prisoner of war, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and adviser to politicians and presidents.
Huddled in the filthy, cramped and frigid huts of a Japanese POW camp in Manchuria, American GIs lived for the time the guard would deliver the buckets of slop that passed as their meal for the day.
The prisoners were expected to divide it among themselves, and these starved men were understandably anxious to get as much of the meager ration for themselves as they could.
One prisoner would be selected as the “chow dipper” to dole out the meal into each man’s cup as he passed through the line. Fights would break out among the desperate men over the amounts of their servings.
Chow dippers usually didn’t last long in the job.
That changed the day a quiet Texan was chosen to dole out the slop and exhibited in that duty the character, wisdom and fairness that earned him the respect he has been accorded throughout his life.
As the chow dipper, Ken Towery filled his own cup first and placed it next to the serving bucket. Then, as each man came through the line he would fill their cup. If any man complained he was being shorted, Towery would invite them to take his cup and replace it with theirs. None ever took him up on his offer.
He remained chow dipper for the rest of the war.
“Nothing in the secular world, the world apart from my family, has approached the honor of being chosen as chow dipper for starving men,” Towery wrote later.
He also said he later realized the honor brought both a blessing and a curse. The blessing was reinforcement of his parents’ teaching that we all should “do unto others.”
“The curse,” he said, “was that it has caused me to judge others, to form opinions about them on the basis of how I think they would have acted in a similar situation.”
Few have measured up.
“The curse of the chow dipper, I suppose, is still with me,” he said.
From the Austin home where Towery lives with his bride, Louise, he looks back on a life filled with accomplishments and adventures that make most lives seem mundane by comparison. From the great war to American journalism’s highest prize and on to positions of great influence in government, he has painted broad strokes across America’s canvas as he moved through his life. And while his steps these days are deliberate and tentative, Towery strode through the American landscape with giant steps for much of the past century.
After growing up on a hardscrabble tenant farm in South Texas, life changed quickly when Towery turned 18 in January 1941 and joined the U.S. Army.
“I wanted to see the world and signed up asking for service as far away from home as the Army could send me,” he said.
Towery was soon shipping out to Corregidor in the Philippine Islands. He manned an anti-aircraft gun and fought gallantly, suffering wounds for which he was awarded the Purple Heart. But after a heroic-but-doomed defense of the island that lasted six months, he and his comrades were captured in May 1942.
For the remaining three and a half years of the war, Towery was confined in Japanese POW camps. Through a procession of camps, he watched as many of his fellow captives starved to death and were tortured and killed by their captors. Malnutrition and disease were the norm. A relative handful survived, and Towery was among those who beat the deadly odds. But his victory came at great cost.
He returned to the United States emaciated and suffering many of the parasitic diseases endemic to the camps. Worse, he came home with a serious case of tuberculosis, and spent five of the next 10 years in and out of isolation wards of TB sanitariums.
In those days before effective antibiotic treatment for tuberculosis, the only treatments medicine had to offer were bed rest, isolation and a nutritious diet.
Towery did not let the hospitalizations stop him. During the time between stays in the hospital, he managed to be a member of the first class of Southwest Texas Junior College in Uvalde, and was admitted to Texas A&M, where he planned to study soil biology.
He also found time to meet, woo and wed Louise Ida Cook, from Knippa.
The new Mr. and Mrs. Towery lived in “Vet Village,” a jumble of plywood shacks near where Kyle Field is now on the A&M campus. But he had to drop out of school and re-enter the hospital when the tuberculosis recurred.
“Thus ended my formal education,” he said later. “All in all, it was a useful exercise.”
His widowed mother had moved to Cuero, in DeWitt County. Louise went there to be with her, and was joined by her husband when his tuberculosis went into remission again.
Coming Wednesday: Towery wins journalism’s highest honor.