2 wars, 2 close calls
When a then-17-year-old Rick Lowry told his classification officer in the U.S. Marines during World War II that he held a pilot's license, the officer was dubious.
"He didn't believe it," recalled Lowry. "He said, 'yeah, yeah, and I'm Captain Marvel.'"
But he soon found out Lowry, now 90, did indeed hold a pilot's license, acquiring it at the tender age of 16 when he was a member of the Civil Air Patrol and graduated from the now-defunct Hill Military Academy in Southeast Portland.
Soon Lowry would end up going through basic training at what is now known as the Marine Corps Air Station in Pensacola, Fla.
"I thought it was pretty interesting being a kid from a ranch," he said of his basic training after spending a good chunk of his childhood on the IZ ranch, 90 miles south of Prineville.
Before long, the 20-year Woodhaven resident was attached to the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing.
Lowry said basic training was uneventful except for the day during rifle training when he shot what he believes was one of the lowest scores ever, a score that upset his platoon leader.
However, he made up for it the next day by shooting in the "expert rifleman" category.
When his pilot's license was verified, Lowry joined the ranks of what would become one of the "least talked about people," of World War II — the teenage fighter pilots.
"Teenage fighter pilots had some pretty famous people," said Lowry, counting former President George W. Bush, astronaut Neil Armstrong and actor Tyrone Power among them. Lowry would pilot one of the military's finest aircraft at the time, the F4U Corsair fighter and bomber, armed with .50-caliber machine guns, six rockets and having the capacity to carry a 500-pound bomb.
"It had far more armor than the Japanese Zeros did," he pointed out, noting that the Corsairs were often known as the "whistling death" for emitting a screaming sound when they were pulled out of a dive.
Lowry said for the most part he was confident in the superiority of his Corsair over that of the enemy planes.
So did he ever have any close calls?
"I got hit up the one time that tore up my tail section," he recalled about the most harrowing of his 127 missions. Over his career, Lowry shot down a total of 14 enemy planes. Lowry would see the war through to its conclusion, being a mere 20 years old when it was over.
Besides being shot at Lowry had another close call as well.
Flying onto an aircraft carrier, he received the wrong instruction from the landing officer, catching his tail hook (which was supposed to stop him) but the cable broke and the aircraft's left wing hit the deck. He tried to power it up but it inverted. Luckily, he got tangled in cables on deck near the elevator with the plane pointing down straight into the open ocean.
"If it hadn't been for those cables and the elevator, I would have slipped and gone right down," said Lowry. "One of the fellows said, 'we'll have you out of there in a few minutes' and I said, 'I don't have a few minutes.'"
He estimated it was at least 20 minutes before the crew was able to remove him from the cockpit.
Lowry would see the war through to its conclusion, being a mere 20 years old when it was over. "We were kind of surprised when it ended," he said, later observing to his closest buddy: "What in the hell are we going to do now? This is basically all we've ever done is be in uniform."
But he would go on in his military career, volunteering along with three other buddies to back up the Chinese in disarming the Japanese still in that country.
"China was great," he recalled, noting, however, that it was still very primitive.
While there he had a local resident create a so-called "blood chit," an embroidered piece of fabric that identified his rank and service history in both English and Chinese. All for the cost of 50 cents. However, he never had the item sewed onto his jacket as was the tradition.
Three years after leaving the military, he married his childhood sweetheart and later went on to serve in the Korean War from 1950 to 1952.
His flying action in Korea was a lot more subdued, he recalled, mostly because of the adverse weather.
"We spent most of our time waiting for the fog to clear and the clouds to clear," he recalled. "There was a lot of freezing (temperatures) ... and you can't land on a carrier when it's iced over."
Later, there was some talk about sending him to Vietnam but a call from a general changed those plans.
After the wars, Lowry would go on to own a couple of service stations and eventually run his own AM-PM service station and convenience store.
He credits much of his success to his military training in the Marines.
"I just think it done me a whole lot of good," he said.
Now living on a quiet street in Woodhaven, Lowry recently lost his third wife, Virginia, to cancer. His first two wives died of cancer as well.
"That's a lot of bad luck, all from the same thing and (there's) no reason why I should be here," he said.
Still, he has a constant companion, a miniature poodle named Pepe.
And he's still in good health as well.
"I asked my doctor, 'for a 90 year old, how do I look?' and she said, 'You're a 10!'" said Lowry.