Valor Friday

| October 29, 2021

Robert Owens

Some time back one of our commenters asked just how many men earned our country’s top awards for their first day in combat. We’ve talked about a couple before, like “Snuffy” Smith, Vito Bertoldo, and with the exception of Brigadier General Roosevelt, all of the Medal of Honor recipients for action on 6 June, 1944 at Normandy. It initially sounded like it would be hard to find examples, but it’s actually somewhat common for a man’s first taste of combat to be an extraordinary example of individual bravery above and beyond the call of duty. Today’s subject was one such man.

Born in 1920 in Greenville, but raised in Spartanburg, Robert A Owens spent his whole life in South Carolina even after he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1942. By then the young Owens had already been in the workforce for five years, having left high school after the 10th grade to work in a textile mill.

Enlisting in February of 1942, just after the US entered World War II, Owens was sent to nearby Parris Island for his recruit training. “Join the military, see the world,” They say, but Owens initially only went so far as North Carolina as he moved to advanced training with the 1st Training Battalion of the 1st Marine Division (1st MARDIV). By June though, the unit was redesignated Company A, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment (Co A 1/3 Marines), part of the 3rd Marine Division (3rd MARDIV).

Soon thereafter, the Marines were mobilized for their role in the war. They would be sent to the South Pacific to begin retaking Japanese occupied territories in an island hopping strategy. They were first sent to American Samoa in September 1942, where they underwent training. Moved to New Zealand and then Guadalcanal, Owens underwent a full 21 months of training before his unit was sent into combat.

The men of 1/3 Marines were to be involved in the landing at Cape Torokina, Bougainville which kicked off the Bougainville Campaign on 1 November 1943. In the months leading up to the landing, Allied airpower softened the island as much as possible. While Japanese aircraft from nearby islands were able to provide some limited close air support to their forces during the battle, it was not significant.

The island’s defenders at the beach would number just 270 Japanese, who would be trying to hold off the entire 3rd Marine Division (and other units seconded to them), numbering some 14,000 men with supporting naval and air power. The Japanese defenders would give the Leathernecks a fight before they gave up their island. While 192 Japanese were killed during the fighting from 1 November into 2 November, they would inflict 78 KIA and 104 WIA casualties.

As the Marines came ashore, the Japanese had one key surprise for the US men. They had, very well concealed inside a hardened bunker, a Type 94 regimental gun. This was a 75 mm mountain gun that was the Imperial Japanese Army’s standard infantry support weapon. Brought into service in 1935 it was capable of firing a variety of shells, including high explosive, incendiary, chemical, and anti-armor.

Type 94 75 mm Mountain Gun

This single gun proved devastating to the Marines. By the time now-Sergeant Owens would face it it had destroyed four landing craft and damaged another ten.

The gun had been placed in such a way that it could only be attacked from the front. It was also protected in such a way that rifle fire and grenades wouldn’t be able to reach the gun’s crew. The field of fire on the 77 mm weapon covered 150 meters of water, threatening the whole amphibious assault as landing craft were disabled and blocking ingress and egress. The gun could continuously fire two rounds per minute, but could surge up to 15 rounds per minute for up to two minutes.

Sergeant Owens looked at the situation and determined a frontal assault was the only option. He called for four volunteers. He arranged his men in such a way that they could lay covering fire for him into Japanese bunkers providing supporting fire to the mountain gun.

Owens, when he felt that he had his best shot, charged up the hill, alone, into the continuously firing enemy cannon. The 6’3″, 232 pound Sergeant of Marines, launched himself through the enemy bunker’s firing port. Owens must have appeared to be an invincible giant to the gunners. They immediately lost their military bearing, and Owens chased the enemy gun crew out the back of the bunker where they were all mowed down by Owens’ Marines.

Owens pressed the assault so hard, that he continued to chase the Japanese out of the gun emplacement and into the open where they were being fired on by the Marines. It’s unclear to me if Owens was then shot by friendly fire or by the now-surrounded enemy gun crew. In either case, his injury proved immediately fatal.

The gun Owens had assaulted alone though the firing hole was found to have a round in the chamber and the breech nearly closed (at which point it would be ready to fire). If Owens had made his fateful mad dash a split second later, he would have been blasted away by the enemy weapon’s firing.

Inside the gun’s pillbox the Marines also found more than 150 rounds of high explosive rounds stacked and ready for firing. With their advantageous positioning and good field of fire, that single gun could have used those rounds to completely halt the Marines at the beach, despite the Marines’ numerically overwhelming odds.

The gun was so important to the Japanese that they made several determined, but ultimately unfruitful, attempts to recapture the position in the next two days as the Marines spread out from the beachhead.

Major General Allen Turnage, Commanding General of the 3rd MARDIV, said of Sergeant Owens’ final act of gallantry, “Among many brave acts on the beachhead of Bougainville, no other single act saved the lives of more of his comrades or served to contribute so much to the success of the landings.”

Owens was recommended for the Medal of Honor for his bravery in action. The recommendation was downgraded and Owens received a posthumous award of the Navy Cross. However, Owens’ case continued to be championed by his former divisional commander General Turnage as well as the Commandant of the Marine Corps General Vandegrift. That they were so insistent on the award being reconsidered, the case was reopened before the end of the war.

On 12 August 1945, just three days after the Bombing of Nagasaki and three days before victory over Japan was celebrated, Sergeant Owens’ father was presented with his son’s posthumous Medal of Honor at a ceremony aboard Parris Island.

The 3rd MARDIV would continue to fight across Bougainville for nearly two months, at which point they were rotated out. Owens was one of three Medals of Honor awarded to 3rd Marine Division troops for bravery at Bougainville. All three were awarded posthumously.

Owens’ battalion would see continued service through the Pacific War, earning a Presidential Unit Citation for the Battle of Guam. They received a Navy Unit Commendation for the Bougainville Campaign. They’ve continued to serve with great distinction next in Vietnam and every major American conflict since. In total, 1/3 Marines have received three Presidential Unit Citations, eight Navy Unit Commendations, and three Meritorious Unit Commendations.

Manilla American Cemetery

Owens’ remains were initially buried at Bougainville but were later reinterred in the Philippines. He now rests with more than 17,000 other heroes of the Pacific war at the Manilla American Cemetery.

Manilla American Cemetery Headstones

There he lies with 22 other Medal of Honor recipients and the five Sullivan Brothers (who famously served together aboard USS Juneau and all perished when the ship sank in June 1942). The cemetery is beautiful in its design that sees the graves laid out in a radial pattern.

A Gearing-class destroyer, USS Robert A Owens (DD-827), was commissioned into US Navy service in 1948 in Owens’ honor. She remained in service until 1982 at which point she was transferred to Turkey where she served for another 17 years before final decommission.

Category: Historical, Marines, Medal of Honor, Valor, We Remember

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Old tanker

Rest well Sgt. Owens. Thank you for our freedom.


“Once more into the breach lads…” Literally. No telling how many Marines lives this Hero saved by his sacrifice. “That such men lived…” “…no greater love…”

Thanks Mason.


Rest in well deserved peace Sgt. Owens. Thank you Mason for another story from our nation’s heroes.


Typical Marine – “launched himself through the enemy bunker’s firing port – a complete self-guided weapon system. Gunnery Sgt. Hartman(R. Lee Ermey-Full Metal Jacket) “Because we kill everything we see..”. Thank God such men Lived.

Thank you, Mason.


Sergeant Robert A Owens, a mountain of a man, physically and of bravery.

Rest Well.


On June 6 2014, on the 70th anniversary of the Normandy invasion I found myself on the wrong side of the world. So on that day my family and I visited the Manila American Ceremony. We took pictures at the graves of a couple folks from SC.

The next time we are in the neighborhood, I’ll look up Sgt Owens Grave and take some pics.