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  1. #1

    Cool Volunteer Warrior

    Lt. William "Chink"Lowe, USMC
    4th Marine Bgd & 90th Aero Sq.

    Volunteer Warrior

    From the University of Tennessee
    Alumni Magazine

    More than 75 years ago, a young UT football hero soared above European battle lines during World War I. The early airman earned the Distinguished Service Cross before returning to UT and the Volunteers. His son-in-law draws on letters and family reminiscences to reconstruct Chink Lowe's experiences as a

    V o l u n t e e r W a r r i o r

    Neal O'Steen (Knoxville '50) is a regular contributor to Tennessee Alumnus and a former editor of the magazine. His wife, Margaret, Chink Lowe's daughter and a UTK alumna, died last year.
    Traditionally the U.S. Marine Corps has been the Navy's landing force, storming and securing contested beaches during the country's wars. Only occasionally have "Leathernecks" been cast in roles with other military branches, such as Lieutenant William O. (Chink) Lowe filled in World War I, as observer and gunner in the Army's fledgling aviation corps.

    Fresh off the University of Tennessee, Knoxville campus, his B.A. degree studies completed, Lowe was eager to enlist the moment the United States entered the war. His sister Alberta, then a teenage girl, recalls that day, April 6, 1917. "Chink came home and told our mother, 'the President declared war on Germany today -- and I'm going!'" The next day he joined the Marine Corps. Later, he would become one of three Marines attached to the Army's small air force in France.

    Besides finishing his degree work, Chink Lowe had achieved success on the football field. As a freshman lineman in 1914, he helped Tennessee to an undefeated season, its first victory over Vanderbilt, and the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship.

    In 1916 he made the All-Southern team as a guard. And he had been named captain of the 1917 team, an eleven that never took the field. Two seasons, 1917 and 1918, would pass before the Volunteers fielded another football team.

    Lowe came from what might be called an "all-UT" family. He was the oldest of four brothers and two sisters to earn UT degrees early this century. He and his brothers, Andy, J.G., and Ted, all played football, the only four brothers in UT gridiron history to earn Volunteer letters. The older of his two sisters, Gladys, earned a UT degree, a doctorate at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, and taught psychology at Michigan State. The only surviving sibling, Alberta, finished at UTK, earned a doctorate at Ohio State, and from 1950 to 1968 taught in UTK's College of Education. Her late husband, Dale Wantling, was dean of UTK's Graduate School. Alberta now lives in Richmond, Virginia.

    After the war, Chink returned to UTK as a law student and as captain of the 1919 football team. And he returned as a war hero.

    Lowe capitalized on his war record and decorations to win a term in the Tennessee legislature in 1920, before finishing law school, and he was active in state politics until his early death in 1949 at age 54. He was the Republican party's nominee in an unsuccessful race for state governor in 1946.

    Lowe's wartime experiences are described in some 50 letters he wrote to family members and his future wife in Knoxville. These letters were among the papers of his late daughter, Margaret, this writer's wife.

    His first letters were mailed from the Marine Barracks at Quantico, Virginia, where he attended officer school and learned the art of trench warfare and how to operate a machine gun. He was not destined to use the former skill, however; but he put the machine gun to good use in a half dozen dogfights in the air.

    Months before he was assigned to aviation duty himself, he had recommended flying to his brother, Andy Lowe, who later trained as an Army pilot. "You won't have to go around in the mud or have to stick a German with a bayonet," he wrote Andy.

    Andy completed flight training and was commissioned about the time the war in Europe ended.

    All the time he was undergoing bayonet practice at Quantico, Chink wanted more meaningful action. "I want to go to France as soon as possible," he wrote his parents.

    He finished officer training school at Quantico on October 20 and was commissioned a second lieutenant. His record in school entitled him to choose his future duty: either go directly to France and the front or to guard duty somewhere in the United States. He chose to go to the front.

    In November 1917 he was assigned to a machine gun company of the Sixth Marine Regiment, which had been ordered to France. "I was not only lucky in getting to go to France, but further got my choice to go with a machine gun company," he wrote.

    Shortly before sailing, Lowe was put in charge of his company for the weekend while the captain was away. "To have men come into the office and stand at attention while I gave orders to do something that I knew nothing about, and they did, was embarrassing," the young officer wrote. "But I put on a stern face and tried to talk natural, so got away with it pretty well."

    Also sailing that cold December day with the Sixth Marine Regiment was another former Tennessee football player. A year older than Lowe, Clifton B. Cates had been an undersized lineman, weighing 158 in his senior year as a Volunteer. But unlike Lowe, Cates would have a long career in a Marine uniform. With ground troops in the first world war, Cates took part in several offensives -- Belleau Wood, Meuse-Argonne, St. Mihiel -- probably with Lowe soaring above in a flimsy aircraft.

    Cates went on to lead troops in a number of World War II actions -- at Guadalcanal, the Solomon Islands, Saipan, Tinian -- and win a chest full of medals. He became a Marine general in 1948 and that year was appointed commandant of the Marine Corps.

    At other times during his service, Lowe encountered other gridiron comrades: Graham Vowell, who, along with Lowe, was named an All-Southern lineman in 1916; Bill May, Tennessee's diminutive quarterback; and M.W. (Big) Vowell, who at 188 pounds was among the biggest Vol linemen.

    As the Sixth Marine Regiment neared the coast of France, a submarine alert gave the troops a foretaste of war. The ship's guns went into action, and a destroyer raced to the spot where a periscope had been reported. The Marines hurried to their assigned lifeboats, expecting the worst. "The boys tell me I was running hard but telling everybody else to take their time," Lowe wrote. "After the smoke settled, it wasn't a submarine but something else. Nothing dangerous."

    On leaving the ship, the regiment boarded a train for a long, cold 60-hour ride to a camp in the vicinity of Paris. There, to Lowe's surprise, he learned that he was not destined for the trenches. He was ordered to the Army's aviation school at Tours to become an aerial observer.

    He trained at Tours, southwest of Paris, from January 12 to February 20. Then he was sent to Amanty, France, for two months of advanced training, including flying. Among his Army classmates he was familiarly called "Marine," a nickname that stuck with him until the end of the war.

    On one of his early training flights, the Marine experienced a thrill known to few humans in 1918. "I broke away from the usual routine for a pleasure trip above the clouds," he wrote to Nina Burkhart, his future wife. "The top of the clouds were shaped something like pictures we have seen of distant mountains, with sharp peaks and deep valleys. The sun added grandeur by giving them a bright shiny silvery effect." In anticipation of future thrills, he added: "A fight in the air will be the most exciting affair I have ever enjoyed."

    Because the United States had not produced planes for combat in Europe, the Americans used British planes mainly. The small observation planes were two-seaters, with the observer in the forward cockpit and the pilot behind. Besides a camera, the observer was provided with a mounted machine gun, the plane's only defense.

    Earlier in the war, planes were not equipped with guns, and a kind of camaraderie developed between the contending warriors in the sky. While concentrating on their missions, Allied and German fliers might exchange a friendly wave as they passed. Then firearms became a part of the airborne cargo -- first pistols and rifles, then machine guns. In 1915 a Dutch engineer, Anthony Fokker, perfected a machine gun that fired between the revolving propeller blades, an invention the Germans quickly adopted. By the time Chink Lowe joined the aerial circus, war in the air had become a deadly game. Being required to fly at low altitudes over battle lines made the small observation planes vulnerable to ground fire. Lowe and his pilot would find both aerial and ground opposition troublesome.

    By late March, Lowe had his fill of training flights. "I have had enough training now and would like to be a regular player in the game," he wrote his family.

    But he managed to find diversions. To help fill his free hours, he made friends with a French girl. "I teach her English and she teaches me French," he wrote home. The girl was a good musician, he reported, and her repertoire included familiar tunes such as "Tipperary" and "Everybody's Doing It."

    Once he and another lieutenant walked eight miles to a nearby village where they knew two girls. Another time he hired a motorcycle and driver for an extensive tour of the countryside.


    Chink Lowe as an All-Southern Guard.

  2. #2
    One time, when fog interfered with a training flight, youthful high spirits took charge. During their joy ride, Lowe and his pilot spotted an infantry regiment drilling in a field. "We first circled the field," Lowe wrote, "and then noticing two men walking along in a way that becomes a soldier, made a dive for them. They pretended to be brave and continue their soldierly bearing, thus vexing the pilot. He dived within ten feet of the ground, and the aforesaid two soldiers fell flat to the ground. Then we noticed the regiment straight ahead and proceeded to scatter them. The Colonel, who was standing by his horse, enjoyed this immensely, laughing and waving his hands. Says the pilot, 'We will have more fun with the Colonel.' Thereupon we circled the field and made at the Colonel, who was on his horse by this time. He stood still till we were close, and then it was a sin the way he put the spurs to his horse. This caused him to be very peeved on being forced to lose his dignity, and he had the men get the number of our machine.

    "The punishment was nothing, however, only being a 'bawling out,' which went in one ear and out the other."

    Training high jinks and pleasant rides about the countryside soon came to an end, and Lowe got his wish for action. He was sent to the front with a French squadron a few days before U.S. Marines launched an offensive at Belleau Wood, and he saw his first action in that battle. On his second flight over the lines, his plane was crippled by a German plane, but the pilot brought it down safely.

    Once he was up with a new pilot, flying over the German lines. The engine began to sputter, then died. The plane came down rapidly, hit the ground and bounced into the air, struck a tree and fell to earth upside down over a shell hole. Both men fell into the hole and looked at one another. "Well, you're alive," Lowe told his companion as he assessed his own dazed and bruised condition. "But I'm dead." "No," the pilot said, "you're alive, but I'm dead!" Both men climbed out of the shell hole unhurt.

    By late June, Lowe was transferred to the U.S. 90th Aero Squadron at Ourches on the Meuse River, headquarters of the First Corps Observation Group. A week later, on July 4, the mayor of the town welcomed the American forces. At the ceremony, little girls gave each American officer "a big bunch of flowers. I happened to receive an extra big bouquet," he wrote.

    Soon after joining the American squadron, Lowe again was flying missions over the front lines. "While flying over the lines a few days ago," he wrote early in July, "a shell burst close to our machine." The pilot made it to the Allied landing field with little damage to the plane.

    After about a month at the front, Lowe was given a brief leave of absence, "the first I have had since arriving in France," he wrote. Traveling by way of Paris, he went to Biarritz, a resort town on the Bay of Biscay near the Spanish border. There he relaxed for several days, swimming and playing tennis, golf, and bridge "with some of the nobility of the place." On stopping in Paris, he saw a familiar face -- that of Flem Hogan, manager of Tennessee's 1914 football team.

    Lowe "earned" another brief leave in Paris. He and his pilot had just finished a dangerous mission over the front when their commanding officer told them the soldiers in the trenches needed information quickly for an offensive movement. Lowe protested, pleading flight fatigue. But when their superior promised them a holiday in Paris, observer and pilot hurried back to their plane.

    Lowe's frequent letters to Nina Burkhart, generally casual in tone and content, took a serious turn in late August. A friend since high school, Nina had been one of several girls he corresponded with while in the Marines. At last he admitted that he had not declared his affection for Nina because of the war. He thought that "a soldier going to war was likely to get killed or injured for life and had no right to ruin a girl's life." He enumerated the reasons he was attracted to her and alluded to his plans to finish law school and start a practice in Knoxville. From that declaration on, the young couple, separated by an ocean and a war, began charting a course to the altar. Nina sent him her picture, which he received on September 25, as the Meuse-Argonne offensive was gathering momentum and two weeks before his busiest day in the sky. "It has been my companion on every mission over the lines since that time," he wrote Nina.

    Nina's picture was with him in the observer's cockpit on October 7, while he and his pilot, Lieut. Wilbert Kinsley, were operating over the front lines in the vicinity of Cunel. Suddenly eight Fokkers came swarming out of a cloud bank, straight for the lone plane. Bullets were hitting the observation plane before Lowe could bring his machine gun to bear. A sudden weakness in the knees further delayed his reaction until the nearest German plane was only yards away. Then his machine gun training took control, and he sprayed the attacking planes with gunfire. One Fokker went down; then a second plunged to earth. The other six turned and fled. The air battle had lasted only about 30 seconds.

    Before that day's mission ended, Lowe's plane was attacked by five more German planes. Again his machine gun drove the attackers away.

    Both Lowe and Kinsley were decorated for their day's work. The awards were made shortly after the November 11 armistice ended the war. On December 2 Lowe wrote his parents: "On Thursday next, December 6th, I am to be formally decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross." Gen. John J. Pershing did the honors. Earlier that year the General had suggested that Congress create the DSC for exceptional heroism in combat. After the Navy Cross was established in 1919, Lowe was awarded that new medal, as well as the Medal of the Aero Club of America.

    Following his successful encounter with the Fokkers, Lowe was promoted to Squadron Operations Officer. On October 30 he wrote home: "I am assistant to the Commanding Officer now so have loads of work to do. Many nights I work until 10 o'clock and sometimes am called out of bed after this to see about some attack that is going to be pulled off."

    Lowe took some good-natured ribbing about his exploits from his Army comrades. They wanted to know why he let six of the eight German planes "get away." One of the mechanics fashioned a walking stick out of a broken propeller, decorated it with two Maltese crosses, representing the two Fokkers he "sent West," and gave it to Lowe.

    On April 10, 1919, the day the squadron moved to the embarkation camp for the long voyage home, Lowe learned that he had been a captain since the previous July 8. The squadron sailed on April 20 and docked at Hoboken, N.J., on May 3. Lowe was discharged on August 15, in time to enroll in UT's law school and play his fourth year of football. He was captain of the Vols that year and received All-Southern honorable mention. Lowe was acclaimed at home for his war record. A Knoxville newspaper declared him "Knoxville's first hero of the war." On December 10, 1920, he and another UT war hero, Private James Stalcup, were honored at a special campus ceremony. The UT battalion paraded and Dean James D. Hoskins and General L.D. Tyson made appropriate speeches.

    In the glow of public acclaim, Lowe decided to enter politics. While still in law school, he ran for the state legislature and won a seat in the House of Representatives.

    Athletics remained a part of Lowe's life for years. Following his term in the state legislature and the opening of a law office in Knoxville, he accepted a part-time job as assistant to Vol Coach M.B. Banks for the 1922 season. Assigned to the line, Lowe had two noteworthy pupils: Estes Kefauver, later U.S. senator and presidential candidate, and his young brother, J.G. Lowe, named All-Southern and honorable mention All-America in his senior year.

    Lowe predicted football success for his brother in a letter to his future wife, dated September 12, 1922, and written at the Vols' training camp at Elkmont in the Smoky Mountains. "We practiced pretty hard today," he wrote. "The boys showed great improvement over yesterday, so I am somewhat encouraged. . . . J.G. showed up good today and altho he doesn't know it all, he seems sure of making the team. I believe he will run some one a good race for All Southern." Lowe's prediction of a good season also proved accurate. The 1922 Vols won eight games and lost only to Vanderbilt and Georgia.


    Lowe with the crashed plane that landed upside down over a shell hole in France

  3. #3
    Chink and Nina were married early in 1923, and the following fall was his final season as a coach. That year the team was less successful, but on November 3, when his wife was at the hospital, presenting him with their first and only child, Margaret Alexander Lowe, there was a concerted effort by players and coaches to "win the game for the baby." That afternoon the Vols defeated Tulane, 13 to 3. Lowe was awarded the game ball, which he took home for the new family member.

    He again became involved in sports four years later when the presidents of seven regional small colleges that made up the Smoky Mountain Athletic Conference decided a commissioner was needed to oversee conference affairs. Lowe was chosen for the new position, and he served the conference for several years, handling questions of eligibility and settling problems that arose. He strongly advocated "open payment" of college athletes, and he heartily applauded the Southeastern Conference when it approved scholarships for players in 1935.

    Although he remained active in politics until his death in 1949, his personal political star never again burned so brightly as it did in 1920, when his wartime exploits were fresh in the public's mind. He made several races for Knoxville offices but without success. His statewide race for governor in 1946 was his last.

    His sister-in-law, Mrs. Andy Lowe, now living in Nashville, says Chink was "a very dignified" individual who campaigned strictly on the issues and was not comfortable doing some of the things that help candidates win elections. "He would never kiss babies to get votes," she said.



    Lowe earned the Distinguished Service Cross after downing two German planes.

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