James Henry “Hank” Cowan joined the Army Air Corps on 5 August 1940 after a year in Company K, 185th Infantry Regiment, California National Guard. After Basic Training at March Field in Riverside, California, he went to Albuquerque, New Mexico (now Kirtland AFB) for advanced training as a B-17 aircraft mechanic. With his 1st Sergeant, Leonard “Bob” Merchant, good friends Gordon “Smitty” Smith, Howard Gunn, Amon “Little Tex” Blair, and others in the 19th Bombardment Group he was shipped to Clark Field in the Philippines in September of 1941.
What does an aircraft mechanic do after his planes have been obliterated on
“The Day That Will Live in Infamy?” He becomes a hell of an ack-ack gunner with the 200th New Mexico National Guard Coast Artillery unit. Retreating to the Bataan Peninsula and fighting until surrendering on 9 April 1942, Hank and his buddies earned the Distinguished Unit Citation five times. He survived the infamous Bataan Death March, the horrible conditions at Camp O’Donnell, and then more than three years as a “guest” of the Imperial Japanese Army. Through all the months and years, the starvation, the beatings, the killer work details, every kind of disease known to man, he never lost faith that America was coming back to set him and his buddies free. On January 30, 1945, the 6th Army Rangers under Lt. Col. Henry Mucci, broke Hank and 511 of his friends and comrades out of the Japanese POW camp called Cabanatuan in the Philippines just before the Japanese were set to murder all in cold blood.
Tokyo Rose followed Hank and his ex-POW friends all the way back to San Francisco trying to knock down their soaring spirits telling them in broadcast after broadcast that the Japanese knew exactly where they were and describing every movement and position (How did she know? No one has ever been able to find out). Arriving in San Francisco on the S.S. General Anderson Hank and his friends found themselves welcomed back personally (via radio link) by President Roosevelt and thousands of San Franciscans. The people of San Francisco awarded the Bataan heroes a special medal (which is among Hank’s most cherished awards), threw the guys the biggest parade in the city’s history, and then threw open the doors of every establishment in the city free of charge. Seeing the sights with his friends he noticed a good-looking girl that hadn’t paired off with another serviceman yet. Six weeks later, Virginia Helen Croft became his bride. Hank went on to raise three children and put in over twenty years as a civilian carpenter at McClellan AFB in Sacramento, California.
He was active in ex-POW outfits and was elected Commander of the 49er Chapter of the American ex-POWs. For more than ten years Hank fought cancer. He was determined to make it through until all the red tape was cleared away for the award of a medal dear to his heart. In 1987, just a few months before his death, he was awarded the POW Medal by Major General Lee Greer at McClellan AFB. General Greer said it all as he recounted Hank’s ordeal on Bataan and in the Philippines as well as his triumphant life after that – he was a survivor. Hank put pen to paper before he passed away and wrote his story entitling it,
“Bataan: A Survivor’s Memoir.” This is the story of how one man fought incredible odds to survive a Japanese Holocaust; how he and his comrades suffered much to preserve the freedom that we Americans enjoy today. Tom Brokaw has called Hank’s generation The Greatest Generation. Hank, along with all the other men and women in World War II knew that freedom is never free and they were willing to give their all to make sure it was preserved. God Bless them all!
Hank’s son, Robert, has formed Bella Vista Press for the sole purpose of publishing Hank’s story and making sure that it is made available to all that wish to read this story of one of World War II’s holocausts. Bella Vista Press is dedicated to Hank Cowan and his comrades in arms and to making sure that the story of the Japanese Holocaust is never forgotten. Every American today owes these men and women so very, very much for the sacrifices that they made on our behalf.