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Owen Roane: The Last Cowboy

by Michael Faley
Splasher Six Volume 29, Fall 1998, No. 3
Cindy Goodman, Editor

As five stately gentlemen stand in the lobby of a Salt Lake City Hotel reminiscing about their youthful exploits, Brian hesitantly approaches the group.

Being a member of the 918th Bomb Group reenactors, (invited to Salt Lake to display their massive collection of 8th Air Force memorabilia at the 100th Bomb Group reunion), he asks this author to introduce him to these war wary veterans. When I introduce him to Owen Roane, he steps back, eyes wide, speechless, and in awe. Pulling me aside he asks, is that “The Cowboy”?

One of seven brothers to serve in World War II, Pilot Owen Roane, would begin his exploits in the ETO on June 26, 1943. A Second Lieutenant, Owen Roane (upon his own request!) is assigned to the 100th BG (H) at Thorpe Abbotts. Due to the loss of three aircraft and crews on the previous day’s mission to Bremen, Owen is assigned to the 349th Squadron, under the command of Captain William Veal. The Group had not yet received its notorious moniker of the “Bloody Hundredth” but this first mission was an ominous foreboding of events to come. Assigned to Captain Veal’s plane “Laden Maiden” Owen and crew would complete 10 rugged missions before engaging in one of the fiercest air battles of WWII.

On the morning of August 17, 1943 the 100th BG was given the unenviable task of being low and last group on the mission to bomb the ME 109 factory at Regensburg. Being in the “Coffin Corner” left the 100th and Owen the most vulnerable to the Luftwaffe and nine planes of the group were lost that day. (A total of 60 B-17s were lost on the Schweinfurt/Regensburg mission). Even though Owen always felt this inner sense that he would complete his tour of duty, the events of this day would “serve as a warning that we all faced death on each and every mission we flew.” One such example was the crew of Lt. Henry Shotland who was flying in “The WAAC Hunter” (second element of the high squadron). Shotland and his crew were roommates with Owen and this was their first mission. It would also prove to be their last. Jumped by three fighters and with the left wing ablaze, everyone bailed out (except the tail gunner who went down with the plane) and become POWs.

The other vivid memory of this battle, indelibly etched in Owen’s mind, was the plight of Lt. Curtis Biddick and his crew. Flying “Escape Kit” in the second element, lead squadron, Biddick’s plane suffered an oxygen fire caused by 20mm damage to the nose and fuselage, trapping those on the flight deck. With flames raging through the nose and cockpit, the co-pilot, Richard Snyder, climbed out onto the wing, reached back into the flaming B-17 to retrieve his parachute and slid off the wing. As Snyder’s chute opened, he was immediately propelled into the horizontal stabilizer of “Escape Kit”, and his chute became entangled on it. According to reports, Snyder was seen trapped on the stabilizer as the plane went down. Four from Biddick’s crew were KIA (including Biddick and Snyder).

Cowboy, flying “Laden Maiden” in the number 2 position, high squadron, would watch the ragged remains of the 100th limp across the Alps and onward toward North Africa. To his left he could see the damaged aircraft of Bob Wolff flying in the lead element with a huge section of his horizontal stabilizer badly in need of repair. It would not be until landing at Telergma that the extent of damage to his own aircraft would be known. The “Maiden” had been peppered with 212 bullet and flak holes.

It would be upon the 100th’s return from North Africa on August 24, 1943 that Owen would provide an immense sense of humor for a group much in need and a mascot as well. It seems that the crew decided to bring back a living souvenir from North Africa, a donkey named “Mo”. An oxygen mask was hooked up in the radio room for Mo, and upon returning to Thorpe Abbotts (Station 139) red flares were fired signaling medical help was needed. The Control Tower asked what the problem was. Owen replied, “I’m coming in with a frozen ass.” When the doctor arrived at the plane, he was astonished to find a real jackass.

Cowboy Roane would go on to distinction participating in such other great Air Battles as Bremen, October 8, 1943 (“the most accurate flak that I’ve ever seen in my life”) and Schweinfurt – “Black Thursday” October 14, 1943, but it would be on a relative unknown mission to Rjukan, Norway on November 16, 1943 that would really affect the outcome of the war effort. Although not briefed on the extreme importance of the mission, the target that day was the Heavy Water plant instrumental to Germany’s effort to develop atomic weapons. Leading the 100th Bomb Group, recently promoted Lt. Roane, along with Command Pilot Major John Bennett, flew in “The Bigassbird II” with Group Navigator Joseph “Bubbles” Payne and “Dead Eye” Bombardier Robert Peel. Cowboy and company found the target through a hole in the cloud cover, courtesy of “Bubbles”, and dropped their bombs right on target. A mission critique would verify that the 100th BG hit the target with 85% of their bombs in the target although the only flak they received was for bombing out of turn. The damage inflicted upon the Heavy Water plant stopped Germany’s production of heavy water and deprived their scientists of the ability to develop atomic weapons. On his final mission to Paris, Cowboy made a joke to the group maintenance officer that he was going to dump his plane in the soft Thorpe Abbotts mud upon his return. Over the target a 20mm hole big enough to fit a body through ripped up the right wing, and Owen had to nurse the plane back home only to see the “Bigassbird II” turn his joke into reality, with the right wing off the end of the runway into the mud as promised. Both the CO and the group maintenance officer help up short of reading Owen the riot act once they saw the condition of the aircraft.

That mission and illustrious landing earned him entrance into the “Lucky Bastard Club” (entrance is contingent upon completing 25 missions), Captain’s Bars, and a trip back to the States on March 6, 1944 (date ring a bell – Big “B”). Cowboy retired from the Air Force a Lt. Colonel in 1963 and lives in Valley View, Texas with his wife Betty. By the way, the nickname “Cowboy” was given to Owen after a Staff Sgt. inquired about his profession before enlisting. Naturally, when Owen said he was a cowboy, the name stuck.

…After nodding my head yes, that is “Cowboy Roane,” Brian joins our circle to hear the tales of a time when 19 year old cowboys rode their Warbirds against overwhelming odds. They were never turned back and many perished to preserve future generations. I always thought of a cowboy as a symbol of the American drive, determination, sense of fair play and pure resolve to overcome any hardship or take on any challenge. Owen Roane is all that and more, a true gentleman, a leader, and one of the legends of the “Bloody Hundredth”. His kind of cowboy may never be seen again.