Kentucky Guard honors late pilot held prisoner during World War IIU.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Jack Henry Owen
(KMI Class of 1936)
CYNTHIANA, KY, UNITED STATES
Story by Dale Greer, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
There can be little doubt that the spirit of U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Jack Henry Owen is alive and well today, nearly 11 years after the former World War II bomber pilot passed away at the age of 92.
On Nov. 13, the adjutant general of the Kentucky National Guard presented his family with a posthumous Prisoner of War Medal here, during a ceremony held in Owen’s long-time family home. Owen, who retired from military service in 1972 after more than 24 years with the Kentucky Air National Guard, spent 21 months as a prisoner of the German military during World War II. He was not awarded a POW Medal at the time because the honor did not exist until 1985.
Assigned to the Eighth Air Force on July 25, 1943, Owen was piloting a B-17 Flying Fortress over Hamburg, Germany, when the aircraft took hostile fire. He and his crewmen parachuted to the ground but were captured by enemy forces, and Owen remained a POW for the duration of the war.
“The Eighth Air Force suffered the most casualties of any command in World War II — and that’s Army, Navy or Marines,” said U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. David Mounkes, the Kentucky National Guard’s current adjutant general for Air. “Daylight strategic bombing was a dangerous, dangerous mission. But it had to be done.
“I’ve deployed my entire career, and have logged combat hours over Iraq and Afghanistan,” Mounkes told more than a dozen of Owen’s family and friends during the ceremony. “But those hours seem much different when one considers the Eighth Air Force missions over Germany in 1943. I am humbled to walk in General Owen’s footsteps.”
The award ceremony, held on a crisp fall day among the rolling hills of central Kentucky farmland, featured a small display of Owen's personal effects, including service photos, his favorite rocking chair, and a portrait drawn by Owen’s father, Sterling P. Owen Jr.
At one point during the ceremony, a relative bumped against the chair, causing a photo to tip over. His grandniece called out, “Hi, Jack!” drawing gentle laughs from those in attendance.
“He made his presence known, didn’t he?” explained Jennifer Owen, who brought the mementos to the ceremony. “I believe we keep the spirit of our loved ones alive by having their pictures near. He was letting us know he’s here today.”
Owen’s spirit is kept alive in other ways, too, military leaders say — most prominently in the modern of culture of the Kentucky Air National Guard, which Owen helped form as its assistant adjutant general for Air; and in the dedication of more than 1,200 Airmen who stand on his shoulders to serve the organization now.
“Today, the Kentucky Air National Guard is prepared to defend the United States against some of the most capable threats the world has seen since World War II,” Mounkes said. “We all hope that we don't have to see fighting on a global scale such that General Owen experienced.
“But General Owen’s legacy continues to live on,” Mounkes told family members.
“It is in the foundation and the core values of the Kentucky Air National Guard — to keep us prepared to face whatever challenge is before us, and to come out on the other side victorious. General Owen went through tremendous challenges. He knew what he faced. But he made it through his time of challenge to keep on serving.”
The Kentucky Air Guard’s 123rd Airlift Wing is one of the most decorated units in Air Force history, having just earned its 20th Air Force Outstanding Unit Award — a record among tactical airlift wings.
That is no accident, Mounkes said.
“I see echoes of General Owen’s leadership today. We remain very operational in the Kentucky Air National Guard. We’re one of the most ‘can-do’ units in the United States Air Force, and are regularly recognized as such.
“That does not happen overnight. It’s built on the leaders and Airmen who went before us — leaders like Brigadier General Jack Owen.”
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Haldane Lamberton, adjutant general of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, agreed.
“Quite simply, the demeanor and professionalism of General Owen have transpired over the decades to imbue us with who we are today,” Lamberton said. “We very much owe who and what we are to his legacy.”
Owen was born Jan. 13, 1920, in Louisville, Kentucky, the youngest of three boys, to Sterling P. Owen Jr. and Lillian Altsheler Owen.
He attended preparatory school at the Kentucky Military Institute in Lyndon, Kentucky, graduating with the class of 1936, and earned his military officer’s commission as a second lieutenant through the Citizen's Military Training Corps at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana.
He entered the active duty Army on June 19, 1941, serving as a transportation officer for an infantry battalion. The next year, he transferred to the Army Air Corps to become a pilot, earning his wings on Oct. 9, 1942. His initial assignment was as a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot with the 532nd Bombardment (Heavy) Squadron, 381st Bombardment Group, Eighth Air Force.
On his twelfth mission out of U.S. Air Station 167 in Bovington, England, the following year, Owen’s plane, “Sad Sack,” was shot down by flack over Hamburg, Germany.
In “The Battle of Hamburg,” a 1980 book authored by Martin Middlebrook, Owen recalled the events of that day.
“The shell burst right between the numbers three and four engines,” Owen said. “It tore big holes in the wing and set fire to the big gas tank behind those engines. They were supposed to be self-sealing tanks but a burst like that just knocked great holes in them. The co-pilot and I were working, feathering the two engines, and one of the gunners called out over the intercom that the wing was on fire. I unbuckled my seat belt, in order to stand up and see how serious it was, and I could see that the fire was too big, with the gasoline burning back from the wing and that there was no way I could sideslip and knock out the fire. This one was too big to snuff out. I knew that, as we lost height, the fire would burn even stronger in the lower air which had more oxygen in it. We were falling behind and losing height fast. The rest of the group went away, just like we were standing still, and I thought, 'My God; you're all going back to England and here I am.'
“Then the fighters started coming in at us,” Owen recalled. “I saw several on each side, just queuing up to have a go at us. I decided to abandon the aircraft before it exploded. I had previously briefed the crew that, in the of loss of intercom and a decision being made to abandon, I would dive and zoom the aircraft to alert them. This done, I put the aircraft on auto pilot. Just before leaving my seat, a 20-mm-sized hole appeared with a loud noise in the windshield directly in front of my head. I felt myself all over, to see whether I was hit but, by some miracle, I wasn't.
“When it was my turn to go, because I had been maneuvering around the aircraft without oxygen, I thought it prudent to pull my chute quickly before passing out. Unfortunately, my high speed through thin air resulted in a terrific slowdown when the chute opened, ripping several panels out of it and it felt as if my groin had been split open. My initial thought when the chute opened, besides the pain, was the tremendous quiet and cold after the noise of the aircraft and the guns firing. Since our heading was from Hamburg northwards, I could see the Baltic Sea some distance ahead from the high altitude.”
Owen’s co-pilot was shot in the chest upon touching down but survived, as did all the crewmembers. Owen suffered a significant back injury and never received treatment during captivity.
Following his release from prison at the end of the war, Owen returned to the United States and was eventually assigned as a pilot with the Air Force Special Air Mission Squadron at Bolling Field in Washington, D.C. Here, he would fly Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and other VIPs.
After leaving the Air Force in 1947, Owen returned to Kentucky, becoming a member of the newly organized Kentucky Air National Guard in Louisville. During his service with the Air Guard, he was recalled to active duty for the Korean War in 1950, and then again in 1968 for the Pueblo Incident, after North Korean forces captured a U.S. Navy vessel and 83 crew members.
He ultimately was qualified to pilot nine different aircraft and held numerous positions with the organization over more than two decades, including wing commander and chief of staff.
Owen’s nephew, Sterling P. Owen IV, who accepted the POW Medal on behalf of the family, described his uncle as unfailingly modest, declining to volunteer information about his military career.
“I said, ‘Jack, how come you never told us anything about all this?’ And you know what his answer was? ‘Nobody ever asked.’ He was very proud of everything, but he didn’t brag. And if that doesn’t humble you pretty quick, I don’t know what will.”
Owen retired from military service on Feb. 8, 1972, and died on Jan. 10, 2013. His remains are buried in the Owen family lot at Battle Grove Cemetery in Cynthiana. .
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