A Bullet in the Head
by Paul Roberts
Another inch of height and he would have ‘bought’ it. That sniper was good but not good enough. Thus, 71 years later, Lt. Howard Trowern is still around. He still has that helmet he wore that memorable day as a reminder of how fragile life is, and still bears the scars of that head wound and a neural injury to his right leg by a German 88 mm shell. All this as the head of a 42-man rifle platoon in General Patton’s Third Army, at the tender age of 18! His division, the 87th (the Golden Acorn), was suffering great losses from the moment they engaged in combat in Metz. As a result there was a big void in leadership and, necessity being the mother of invention, Howard was upgraded from sergeant to lieutenant, a battlefield commission, probably the youngest lieutenant in the U.S. Army. (The photograph shows 7 men, who had survived from the original platoon.) They crossed through Alsace-Lorraine into the Saar valley in Germany. At that time the Germans launched the Battle of the Bulge, and his division raced into Belgium, attacking the elite Panzer Lehr Division near Bastogne. Breaking through the noose around the 101st Paratroops they were greeted by the troopers with, “We don’t need you, we need your ammo.” One myth that made the rounds at the time was the response General Anthony McAuliffe gave to the German demand to surrender. He said “Nuts,” but it might have been code for a reference to Howard’s division, the 87th, which was on the verge of breaking through the encircled enemy’s lines. Their division’s insignia was a golden acorn, a nut, thus rescue is at hand.
While on a patrol, he met a group of frustrated Scotsmen, aching for contact with the ‘jerries.’ Howard pointed out a couple of machine gun nests that had pinned them down. “Let me know if you need any help,” Howard volunteered. A short time passed, and the squad brought in a group of prisoners. When Howard asked why there weren’t more, their lieutenant, in his proudest brogue said, “You don’t want to know.”
After the Bulge, they breached the Siegfried Line in the Eifel Mountains, crossed the Rhine River and dashed across Germany, reaching Hostau, 4 miles from the Czechoslovak border. It was here that his platoon came across a prisoner of war camp, liberating several hundred soldiers, and a horse farm that turned out to be one of the stables for the breeding mares and performing stallions of the famous Lipizzaner Spanish Riding School of Austria. A groomsman greeted them with a plea for oats for his starving horses, the Germans having ‘appropriated’ whatever was available. Howard’s men were able to scrounge up some feed and then radioed S-2, learning that General Patton, a dedicated horseman himself, who had played polo for the Army years before, was organizing a rescue mission, labelled OPERATION COWBOY. It seemed that elements of the Russian Army were approaching, intent on slaughtering the mares to feed their hungry troops. With the aid of riflemen from Howard’s platoon, military vehicles and Cossack, Polish and Czech outriders, they herded 244 horses 130 miles in two days safely back to their home in Manuback, Austria, depriving the Russians of this expensive prize.
Unfortunately for the Americans, who had beat the Soviet troops to this country, they had taken over the largest armament complex in the world, the Skoda Works at Pilsen, were obligated by prior accords to accede the country at the end of hostilities to Russia. This included the central research operations at Skoda with its vital blueprints, data and men who produced the research that would help future scientific conquests.
During their drive through the Rhineland, his patrol, part of the 345 Infantry Regiment, was stopped by three machine gun nests, fire coming from a farmhouse adjacent to a convent. After an exchange of gunfire, one of the Sisters of Charity approached Howard and told him that if he would promise not to kill those hold out Germans, she would show him how to outflank them. He promised, captured thirty of them, and true to his word, marched them off. As a bonus, the platoon ‘borrowed’ 30-40 of their white habits to use on patrol as camouflage in the snow, promising to return them. They did, and 30 years later, while on vacation with his wife, he visited the convent, and sure enough, they still were wearing them, replete with blood stains and dirt still showing.
It was here on February 8 that Howard was shot in the head in a ‘beaten zone,’ treated himself and knew he wasn’t badly wounded because he looked at his watch and could tell the time. At the aid station, the lovely actress Linda Darnell visited the wounded and planted a kiss on each of the wounded patients, except Howard. The blood on his face was a ‘turn-off!’ One of his lifelong regrets!
After his recovery, he was back with his platoon, entering Koblenz. He sent a few scouts to determine what kind of resistance they faced. After several hours, with no word from them, his platoon cautiously entered the town. They were greeted by a couple of inebriated men. On investigation, they had found an abandoned warehouse, loaded with kegs of brandy, waiting to be tapped. Fortunately, the Germans had cleared out. General Patton came upon the scene, chastised them and denied them any water. “When you get to the Rhine you can drink all you want.” The next day they made it.
The war in Europe ended, the joy of being on a Liberty ship headed back to America was palpable. He had survived two years of combat and now was going to carve out a new life. Imagine the shock of finally seeing the resplendent Statue of Liberty, the fire boats spouting water in greeting, P-51s flying overhead, and as a bonus, gorgeous dancers of the Radio City Hall Rockets doing their routine on a barge in the harbor. Howard suddenly realized it was his birthday, and naively believed this was in his honor! Truth be told, their Liberty ship was the first to return home, the Japanese having surrendered two days earlier on August 18.
After being discharged from the Army, he re-discovered the little girl who lived next to his parents’ home, who had now blossomed into a beautiful blue-eyed teenager. Nancy helped him wash his car, and the rest of the story was predictable. The fly in the ointment was her father, Lt. Gen. Karl Day, a command pilot in the Marine Corps. Howard had to adhere to the conservative protocol, asking him for her hand in marriage. Four children, seven grandkids and 64 years of wedded bliss later (which sadly ended with her passing away this past February), he fulfilled his promise to love and obey, even when she got mad, smashed a dish, and couldn’t remember why she had been mad.
Howard remembered that the general also had a short fuse, but made up for it by his successes, before, during and after the war. He earned the Navy Cross in the First World War by accurately bombing a German troop train. In the 1930s he flew the mail in bi-planes and pioneered in instrument flying. Approaching Detroit one day, visibility nil in a pea-soup fog, fuel gauge empty, he grabbed the mail sacks, parachuted out and landed safely, the mail intact. Miraculously, the plane did likewise, in a field, with only a damaged propeller! Before the War, he was the head pilot for American Airlines. Called up during the War, he flew bombing missions in 1944 at the Battle of Peleliu in the South Pacific, and was appointed base commander of the island after its conquest.
After Howard’s discharge from the Army, he received an MBA from Harvard, and eventually carved out a successful career in rescue management for such entities as the National Bank of Detroit, Warner Lambert, Dupont. If an account was ‘aged’ (over 150 days in arrears) he taught these companies to bite the bullet and take them out of their Asset column.
He and his wife Nancy moved from Grosse Pointe, Michigan 7 years ago, to the Silver Spring Leisure World®. He is identifiable around the neighborhood by the Army helmet he wears (with the bullet hole that probably saved his life) very evident. He is indeed one of the nation’s many unsung heroes, a grim reminder of the past war.
And, after 70 years, not too late, the song was finally sung. The French Government found some names in obscure files of members of Howard’s platoon that fought for the liberation of France, and their names were promptly submitted to President Hollande. He authorized the award of the country’s highest recognition, the Napoleonic Chavalier of the Legion d’Honneur medal to them. A solemn ceremony was held last year at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C.
All photos courtesy of Paul Roberts – Resident of Leisure World® Maryland