May 31, 2021


I have only a few vague memories of my brother-in-law Joe Rowden.  I remember he was tall, slender, very handsome and rather quiet. I remember his being at our house for supper once with Tootsie and the boys—and the drop leaf on the table where he was sitting collapsed, spilling food all over him!  We all thought it hilarious.

He and Tootsie had moved to Maryville during the early days of the war where he had a defense job.  After Bill was born, as the young married father of three he could have been exempt from active duty.  But he—and several other young fathers from near Athens—joined the U.S. Navy.  I have no idea how he thought through what his duty was—but I feel sure he thought he would return to his family after the war ended.

He was a Fireman First Class on the USS Indianapolis.  The ship had a heroic record in several key battles—and had returned briefly to San Francisco for some repairs and maintenance.  It may have been at that time that Joe was granted a compassionate leave to be with Tootsie at Vanderbilt Hospital when little Bill (just a little over 1 year old) had major surgery for a benign brain tumor.  All went well-and he returned to the USS Indianapolis.

On May 8, 1945, the Allies declared victory in Europe after the surrender of Germany.  Tootsie and Harriett were both anxiously awaiting victory on the Japanese front—with Joe and Glenn both in military service there.  That news was announced on August 15, 1945, when Japan surrendered.  There was much excitement everywhere—and joy at the prospect of loved ones coming home.  Tootsie said she couldn’t get excited yet—and was nervously pacing the floor for news.  A few nights later, my father was listening to late news on the radio when he heard a bulletin that the USS Indianapolis had been torpedoed by a Japanese submarine on July 30 with major casualties.  He woke my mother and me and we went across the street to be with Tootsie and the boys.  The next day she received a telegram that Joe was “missing in action.”  I remember little Jerry saying, “He will be okay.  I’m sure he’s in a foxhole and they will find him.”

We later learned more of the story. The ship was on a secret mission to deliver parts of the first atomic bomb to be used in combat to a U.S. air base on Tinian.  After completing that, the ship was destroyed by 2 Japanese torpedoes and sank quickly.  Of the 1,195 men who sailed on the USS Indianapolis, only 316 survived.  It was thought that 330 were lost with the ship (probably including Joe because he was a Fireman) and about 860 men were left alone in the Pacific for five days before their wreckage was discovered.  Many drowned or were killed by sharks.  It was the worst sea disaster in the history of the U.S. Navy.

For several years, Joe’s sons visited the annual reunions of USS Indianapolis survivors and families of those lost.  Jerry took a photograph of Joe with him and asked veterans if anyone remembered his father.  He did find one man who told him he did—and developed a close relationship with him.  It brought some comfort. This is a photo of the ship’s memorial in Indianapolis.  Heather, Paul and I visited it several years ago.

Here’s on the memorial’s list of those who lost their lives on July 30, 1945—ROWDEN JOSEPH G Fi. He was just 25 years old. Memorial Day is about Joe and all the others from all the wars who have died in military service. 

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