Friday, November 01, 2013

TFH 11/1: Sergeant Robert A. Owens, USMC

Robert Allen Owens was born in Greenville, South Carolina on September 13, 1920. He grew up in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He left high school after two years to take a job as a textile worker, and worked in that capacity for five years. With the United States' entry into World War II, he volunteered for the United States Marine Corps on February 10, 1942.

After recruit training, he was assigned to the 1st Training Battalion at its activation on May 1, 1942. The battalion was redesignated as the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment on June 17, 1942 as the Marine Corps expanded for wartime service. 1/3 Marines became part of the brand-new 3rd Marine Division when it was activated on September 16, 1942. They deployed for combat in the Pacific in early 1943.

The motto of the 3rd Marine Regiment is Fortuna Fortes Juvat - "Fortune Follows the Brave". On November 1, 1943, the 3rd Marine Division was the spearhead of the I Amphibious Corps for the assault on the shores of Cape Torokina on the Japanese-held island of Bougainville. The attack was their first combat action. After preparatory bombardments the first wave, 1/3 Marines and now-Sergeant Robert A. Owens included, charged ashore from their landing craft at 0710 hours.

Amphibious assaults are most vulnerable as they come ashore. Until the attacking forces can move off the beach to points inland, the risk of them being destroyed at the water's edge is extreme. The Japanese knew this. Directly overlooking the beach where 1/3 was coming ashore, the Japanese had built a bunker concealing a 75mm artillery piece. This gun, able to fire at point-blank range (about 150 yards!) at the landings, quickly destroyed four landing craft and their cargoes of men and supplies and had damaged at least ten more.

If the Marines were going to stay on Bougainville and not be thrown back into the sea by the enemy, that gun had to be taken out. There was only one vulnerable spot on which to attack the bunker and the murderous gun it contained: directly against its front. Robert Owens made that charge.

From Military Times' Hall of Valor:

The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pride in presenting the Medal of Honor (Posthumously) to Sergeant Robert Allen Owens, United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving with the First Battalion, Third Marines, THIRD Marine Division (Reinforced), in action against enemy Japanese forces during extremely hazardous landing operations at Cape Torokina, Bougainville, Solomon Islands, on 1 November 1943. Forced to pass within disastrous range of a strongly protected, well-camouflaged Japanese 75-mm regimental gun strategically located on the beach, our landing units were suffering heavy losses in casualties and boats while attempting to approach the beach, and the success of the operations was seriously threatened. Observing the ineffectiveness of Marine rifle and grenade attacks against the incessant, devastating fire of the enemy weapon and aware of the urgent need for prompt action, Sergeant Owens unhesitatingly determined to charge the gun bunker from the front and, calling on four of his comrades to assist him, carefully placed them to cover the fire of the two adjacent hostile bunkers. Choosing a moment that provided a fair opportunity for passing these bunkers, he immediately charged into the mouth of the steadily firing cannon and entered the emplacement through the fire port, driving the gun crew out of the rear door and insuring their destruction before he himself was wounded. Indomitable and aggressive in the face of almost certain death, Sergeant Owens silenced a powerful gun which was of inestimable value to the Japanese defense and, by his brilliant initiative and heroic spirit of self-sacrifice, contributed immeasurably to the success of the vital landing operations. His valiant conduct throughout reflects the highest credit upon himself and the United States Naval Service.

Sergeant Owens was originally awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism, but his decoration received a completely deserved upgrade to the Medal of Honor at the behest of both General Alexander A. Vandegrift, commander of I Amphibious Corps, later Commandant of the Marine Corps, and Major General Allen H. Turnage, commanding general of the 3rd Marine Division. Both credited Owens' heroic act with the success of the landings at Cape Torokina.

Owens' remains were first interred in a temporary cemetery on Bougainville. He rests today with 17,200 of his World War II comrades-in-arms at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines.

The Gearing-class destroyer USS Robert A. Owens (DD-827) was commissioned by the United States Navy on November 5, 1949 and served our nation until February 16, 1982. After decommissioning, the Owens was sold to the Turkish Navy and was ultimately scrapped in 1999. 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment is still active with the modern 3rd Marine Division. Their home station is Marine Corps Base Hawaii.

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