Veteran recalls ‘trying to stay alive’ in South Pacific


JASPER — John William “Bill” Bowling, 97, remembers being told at basic training in Parris Island, South Carolina, “Don’t try to escape this island, because if you don’t get shot, the sharks will get you.”

It was enough to keep his 20-year-old self and his fellow Marine recruits in line.

Training for the Marines was tough. Bill marched through South Carolina swamps. He hiked 10 to 15 miles a day. The days were hot and they were long.

He remembers the drill sergeant saying, “We will tear you down and rebuild you our way.”

After that training, it was on to North Carolina for more.


Then Bill took a train ride across the country; it picked up other newly minted Marines along the way, before reaching San Francisco. The Marines — at least 1,000 of them, Bill says — then boarded a large troop ship headed for New Zealand, where they worked for three days and nights unloading ships and loading other smaller ships. They then sailed to their final destination in the South Pacific — Guadalcanal — and arrived on Aug. 7, 1942.

Bill was born on Oct. 16, 1921, and has lived his whole life in Loogootee — minus his time in the Marines, and recently, as he’s been getting rehabilitation at Northwood Retirement Community in Jasper. His parents, Harry and Bridget (Mattingly) Bowling, had seven children; Bill and his brother, Don, who is a former mayor of Loogootee, are the only two still living.

Bill said he grew up poor, but everyone was poor, he says, so he and his siblings didn’t even realize it at the time. His dad worked as a serviceman for an electric company, and all of his money went to raising his large family.

Bill was raised Catholic and attended St. John’s Grade School and Loogootee High School.

Before he joined the Marines on Feb. 16, 1942, at 20 years old, he worked for Carnahan Manufacturing Company — which was where he was when World War II started on Dec. 7, 1941, with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor — and then the Civilian Conservation Corps for a brief time.

He enlisted because he knew he would eventually get drafted.

He chose the Marines — he enlisted for four years — because he thought it would be tough. “I thought I was tough,” he says.

Following training when Bill and his fellow Marines arrived in Guadalcanal, they were instantly attacked by the Japanese. It was the start of the Battle of Guadalcanal — the first offensive of World War II, which ended Feb. 9, 1943.

In recounting the attack in a 2010 personal account in the Loogootee Tribune, Bill wrote: “We could see the islands in the distance, and all at once, Japanese planes came, dropping bombs and shooting at us. The ship next to us was on fire, and Marines were jumping in the water. We climbed down nets and got into boats that took us to the beach, where we waded with our rifles and gear to dry land.”

In all of his time serving in the Marines, Bill says he remembers the most about Guadalcanal.

He had never spent an extended period of time away from home, which was difficult, he says. However, “most of my concern was trying to stay alive.”

After Guadalcanal, he spent some time in Australia, New Guinea, New Britain island and then Peleliu.

He recalled an instance in Peleliu when “we was trailing up a mountain, and I wondered if this was going to be my last one. Am I ever going home?”

Bill Bowling, left, stands with his friend, Arthur Gares, who was killed in the war.

He lost his best friend, Arthur Gares from Philadelphia, at Peleliu. Bill wasn’t with Arthur when he died, so to this day, he still doesn’t know what happened.

However, recently, he was able to connect with Arthur’s niece, which he’s thankful for.

After three years serving in the war, Bill was finally able to come home for 60 days of leave before being relocated to Norfolk, Virginia, where he did guard duty for a Navy prison. After a few months, he was transferred to Crane and did guard duty there for several months before being transferred to Camp Pendleton in California for the same job.

That’s when he was told the U.S. planned to invade Japan. The U.S. dropped the world’s first deployed atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945, and another on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945.

The Japanese surrendered less than a week later.

“Some still say they shouldn’t have dropped the [atomic] bombs,” Bill says of the U.S. “But I’m glad they did.”

He added that without the bombs, thousands more people on both sides would have been killed in the war.

Bill’s four years in the Marines ended on Feb. 19, 1946.

He remembers being welcomed home like a hero, especially in Loogootee.

“The heroes were the ones we left over there,” he says.

Bill says he likely had some post-traumatic stress disorder due to the war, and because of the explosions in combat, he lost hearing in his left ear and damaged his hearing in the right one.

When he returned, Bill’s dad convinced him to become an electrician, and he started the Bowling Electric Service. Over the years, he was an electric contractor, had an appliance store and bought a mobile home court. He had a mobile home sales lot for more than 50 years before he sold it a couple of years ago.

At 26 years old, he married his wife, Ardis (Braun), and they had three kids — Pat, Marsha and Rick. Ardis died in 2004.

Bill came to Northwood about six weeks ago. He broke his hip in December, and was recovering when he hurt his knee.

In his free time, he says he likes to read, and watch the news and “Forensic Files.” He used to like to hunt quail, rabbits and squirrels. He also had a place on West Boggs Lake for more than 30 years.

“All the kids loved to be on the lake with us,” he says.

In 2015, Bill traveled to Washington, D.C., on an Honor Flight trip to visit the war moments on the National Mall.

“It was really nice,” he says. “They treated us like heroes.”

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