Merwin Cowles with his wife Mary in their Plattsburgh home. Cowles served in the South Pacific with the U.S. Marine Corps.
Merwin Cowles was a farm boy from Adams, N.Y. when he joined the Marine Corps in 1943. Because he was good with machinery from being a farmer, Cowles ended up piloting an “Amtrac” in some of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific theater.
An Amtrac is an amphibious landing craft with tank-type tracks that operated both on the water as well as on land. Cowles commanded a squad of three Amtracs that ferried men and supplies from ships off Saipan and Okinawa into battle, then returned to a hospital ship with the injured and dead. While on shore, Cowles and his Amtracs provided support fire with the vehicle’s two 30 caliber and one 50 caliber machine guns.
“It was just fighting, that was all. Just plain, hard fighting,” said Cowles at his Plattsburgh home, his wife Mary at his side for support. “It was very, very hard. It kind of took a lot out of us.”
It took so much out of him, that for 70 years he never talked about the battles he took part in, including Okinawa’s bloody Sugar Loaf Hill. Okinawa was the largest and one of the deadliest battles, and also the final battle, of the Pacific theater. The 100,000 Japanese defending Okinawa suffered almost 100 percent casualties, fighting often to the very last bullet, and then committing suicide in front of the Marines. But there were no easy battles in the Pacific.
Cowles was wounded once, when a piece of shrapnel lodged in his knee, but he never received the Purple Heart because he didn’t go to the hospital for treatment.
“One of the medics took a pair of scissors and pulled it out. He wrapped it up and slapped me on the a and said ‘Go boy, go.’”
With a halting voice, and a self-conscious manner, Cowles recounted “The Sugar Loaf,” and how the Japanese forced teen-aged children, including girls, into battle. To save himself and his fellow Marines, Cowles, and countless other Marines like him, were forced to swing the Amtrac’s big guns into action. Those actions lived quietly inside the Marine throughout the long expanse of years.
“When we came home, there wasn’t anybody around to treat us; to say hello, and say you did a great job. Nobody to say we’re glad you made it back all right. There just wasn’t anybody.”
What he did when he returned home, like so many of his generation, was he went to work. Cowles worked in construction and with heavy equipment, eventually becoming a superintendent for a large construction company. He also met and married his wife.
“And thank God I did,” he said.
Their children came to Plattsburgh to attend SUNY Plattsburgh, and they suggested that their parents move to the area as well. They moved in 2002, and Cowles continued to work construction in Plattsburgh as well.
It wasn’t until Cowles, now 88, was chosen as one of the first four veterans to fly on the inaugural North Country Honor Flight to Washington that he started to open up about his war experience. The trip to Washington, he says, was such a moving experience that he openly wept at the World War II Memorial. He calls the trip to Washington one of the best things that ever happened to him, going a long way to erasing the feelings of the homecoming he and his generation never received.
Honor Flight is working to get Cowles the Purple Heart he rightly deserves. He was also awarded the New York State Medal of Merit and the Marine Corps Combat Action Ribbon through the efforts of Honor Flight.
Now Cowles, along with his fellow “Band of Brothers” Bob Brooks, Napoleon Light and Dave Mitchell, as well as numerous other local veterans, crisscross the North Country taking part in Honor Flight events. He especially likes speaking at schools, but says with a self-depricating manner, that he is not nearly as good a speaker as Brooks.
One thing that he will always be, is a good Marine.