Claude Alexander Rowe Jr. of Chula Vista, who served in the armed forces of two allied nations during World War II, was laid to rest Friday at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego with full military honors, including a gun salute and a “missing man” formation flyby of WWII-era fighters.
Rowe died on Sept. 20 at age 97. He was born in Detroit on July 7, 1921. He was a student at the Lawrence Institute of Technology during World War II and left college during his second year to serve his country as a pilot.
Because Rowe was black, he was not eligible to fly in the Army Air Corps. Instead, he went north, to the Royal Canadian Air Force, where he earned his wings in 1944.
In September 1945, Rowe came back to the U.S. and joined the Army, this time as part of the Tuskegee Airmen Experiment, a segregated unit. He earned his wings in June 1946 and flew bombers such as the WB-50 and B-29.
Rowe talked about his experience in the segregated military in a 2009 community essay in The San Diego Union-Tribune.
“It was routine to be separated, and although the discrimination was uncomfortable, we were too determined to let that stop us,” Rowe wrote. “We were not just fighting for our country, we were fighting for our dreams, and we were willing to give our lives for it.”
Rowe stayed on as the Air Corps transitioned into the Air Force, eventually becoming a weather officer. He retired in 1966 as a captain.
The Air Force gave Rowe the opportunity to travel extensively, serving in post-war Germany, Japan, Korea and England. In England, he met his wife of 67 years, the former Winifride Swinnerton. They went on to have eight children.
After retirement, Rowe went into banking, eventually becoming a bank manager and vice president in Michigan.
It was when one of his daughters, Dorothy, joined the Navy that the Rowes relocated to San Diego in 1975.
Rowe, who was retired at the time, visited to help Dorothy settle in.
“We lived in Portage, Michigan, and when I graduated from high school I wanted to leave,” Dorothy Rowe said. “So I took off and joined the Navy. When he saw (San Diego), he said, ‘Oh, I love this place.’ So he flew back home and told my mom to put the house up for sale. It was like the Beverly Hillbillies driving out to San Diego.”
Marlene Marien, Rowe’s eldest daughter, said her dad was a fantastic cook.
“One of my fondest memories from childhood, I always looked forward to Sunday dinners, because that was when my dad cooked,” she said. To this day, his fried chicken was the only fried chicken I would eat.”
Marien said she wanted people to know her father was a man of character.
“No matter what negative treatment he received throughout his life as one of the first black pilots, he never held any malice in his heart,” Marien said. “He always held his head up high and he never let anyone’s opinion of him change his opinion of himself. He was a very, very honorable man.”
Marien remembered one incident when her parents were driving cross-country.
“They stopped to get gas,” she said, “and the lady gave him the wrong change. He realized it after he’d driven about 50 miles, so he drove the 50 miles all the way back to return the change because he didn’t want her to get in trouble.”
Dorothy Rowe said her father left an impression on everyone he met.
“(He was) just a wonderful person, anyone who came into his life felt blessed,” she said. “Everybody just adored him.”
She said her father was an exceptional grandfather as well, and took on the tasks some of her siblings were wary of, such as teaching their kids to drive.
“He took care of all his grandkids and taught them how to drive,” she said. “I was afraid, but my dad didn’t mind taking them out.
Erica Kimble, Dorothy Rowe’s daughter, said her grandfather was more like a father to her.
“He would watch us all the time after school,” she said. “When we were little, he’d do our hair in the morning…since our dad wasn’t around.”
“Not only did he raise all of his eight kids, he raised most of his 18 grandkids,” Dorothy Rowe said.
Rowe’s burial service Friday included an escort and honors by the Patriot Guard and a horse-drawn carriage. Representatives from the Royal Canadian Legion also attended, as well as Nelson Robinson, who is also a Tuskegee Airmen veteran.
California State Sen. Joel Anderson was in attendance and spoke briefly about the historical significance of the men who joined the then-segregated U.S. military to serve during World War II.
“The men who met the call to become Tuskegee Airmen were the best our nation had to offer,” he said.
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