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Gold Star Families Day: For Owasso woman, 99, brother's WWII death 'still hurts,' inspires thoughts of what might have been
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Gold Star Families Day: For Owasso woman, 99, brother's WWII death 'still hurts,' inspires thoughts of what might have been

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Although she tried to convince herself otherwise, there was no mistaking what Rose Guilfoyle had heard.

The man on the news had just said the name of her brother’s ship.

“I remember it distinctly: I had the radio on, it was about 10 o’clock at night — and he said the USS Rowan was torpedoed and sunk today,” she said.

“It just gripped my heart,” she said, clutching her fist to her chest at the memory.

Guilfoyle, who was in Kansas City, where she had recently moved for work, knew it was too late to call her parents back in Greeley, Kansas.

“My dad always went to bed early,” she said.

So until morning, she would have to keep the grim news to herself.

“I stayed awake all night,” she said. “There was no way I could sleep after that.”

Today, more than 78 years since her brother’s death in World War II made her a Gold Star sister, Guilfoyle, 99, still misses Merle Bowman.

In her mind, he’s still who he was then — the lanky lad who needed suspenders to hold up his pants.

Who could dance the foxtrot with the best of them.

Who had been a buddy to her, and even taught her to swim.

“It still hurts,” said Guilfoyle, who lives in Owasso. “I’ve often wondered — would he have had children? What could he have accomplished in his lifetime?”

Ahead of Gold Star Mother’s and Families Day on Sunday, Sept. 26, Guilfoyle talked about her brother and the impact of his loss on the family.

In addition to the occasion, it was well timed for another reason.

Just a few days ago, Guilfoyle became the caretaker of a special memento of her brother’s: his Purple Heart.

She said she doesn’t remember seeing the medal when it was given to their parents after his death.

And for decades, it had been stored away.

With another family member’s death recently, the medal was passed on to Guilfoyle.

“It makes me so proud,” she said.

The Purple Heart was issued posthumously in recognition of Bowman’s sacrifice.

It happened on the night of Sept. 11, 1943.

His ship, the USS Rowan destroyer, was providing support in the Allied invasion of Italy when it was torpedoed by German forces off the coast of Salerno.

The hit was direct and devastating.

The vessel sank in less than a minute, taking with it 202 of the 273 men on board.

Bowman, 22, was one of them.

Declared missing initially — as his family was informed by telegram — Bowman and the others would not be officially ruled dead until a year later.

Although they knew it was unlikely, Guilfoyle said, the family clung to hope that he might be alive. Like so many others lost at sea, his body had not been recovered.

A letter from one of his surviving shipmates finally provided closure — or at least the closest the family would would ever get to it.

They still have the letter, which affirmed the survivor’s belief that Bowman had been killed.

Guilfoyle’s daughter Alice Hewett said, “He included a photo of the ship and was able to show on it where Merle would have been,” which was close to the torpedo explosion.

“It was his way of letting them know he would not have suffered.”

Dying honorably

The oldest son in a close-knit Catholic family, Merle Albert Bowman was the second overall of eight children.

Guilfoyle was next in line, 17 months his junior.

Guilfoyle, who had survived polio as a toddler, still walked with a limp.

But she didn’t let it slow her down. And in her big brother, she found a ready companion.

“We had little creek out behind our house. He taught me to swim there,” she said. “He would figure out the deep places where we could dive off the bank.”

Guilfoyle has especially fond memories of dances from her youth. One was held every Tuesday night at a Catholic church hall in nearby Scipio.

Bowman was a “great dancer,” she said, and the siblings would often go as a group.

After finishing high school, Bowman continued his job at a neighboring poultry farm.

But in 1941, like it did for so many other young men, the Pearl Harbor attack changed everything.

Bowman volunteered for the Navy the next day, his sister said.

“He would’ve been drafted soon,” Guilfoyle said. “I remember him saying he didn’t want to go to the Army.”

No one wanted to see him go, she added, “but there was nothing you could do. There was no alternative. Everyone was going.”

Meanwhile, Guilfoyle focused on transitioning to adulthood.

She moved to Kansas City and went to work for a bank.

For a small town girl, the big city was plenty exciting, she said.

But if her life briefly had a carefree feel to it, that would change suddenly.

It was in Kansas City one night, as she was getting ready for bed in her apartment, that she heard about the Rowan’s sinking.

The news shook the family. Guilfoyle recalls her parents trying bravely to hold it together.

“I think they really bucked up for the kids’ sake.”

But not all signs of distress could be hidden, she added.

“My mother had beautiful red hair. And it turned white almost overnight.”

Guilfoyle went on to marry after the war and moved to Oklahoma with her late husband Anthony.

In the decades since, the family has been able to learn more.

A book called “Shipmates,” based on the account of Rowan survivor Lewis Seeley, chronicled the ship’s wartime service and fate.

It provided details that helped Bowman’s family better understand what his life and death would’ve been like.

However, nothing has made Guilfoyle feel closer to her brother than receiving his Purple Heart.

To have it come to her now, after all these years, has been a blessing, she said.

One of the first things she did was to share it with her friends at her retirement home.

“They had never seen one either,” Guilfoyle said. “We passed it around, held it in our hands.”

She’s thought about where she wants it to go when she’s gone.

“I have a nephew. He’s my younger sister’s son and his name is Merle — after my brother. I think he should have it.”

Being a member of a Gold Star family is not something anyone signs up for, Guilfoyle said.

“I wish we wouldn’t have any more wars,” she said.

But she takes some comfort at least in knowing her brother “died honorably,” she said.

“And he was in the service that he wanted to do. He chose the Navy.”

Featured video:

Bob Marks, 96, who was wounded in action in two different wars — World War II and Korea — earned a Purple Heart.

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