Tiny came home Wednesday, three-fourths of a century after he’d left town with the grin on his face that had made him a darling of Palm Beach High’s Class of 1941 and filled with ardor to save the world — or die trying.
Which is what U.S. Army Sgt. Richard Gordon Sowell did, fighting in the Pacific in 1944.
With the military unable to make a firm identification of his shattered remains, they lay in a numbered grave with those of others until authorities used 21st-century technology to make a match. And finally send him home.
He will be buried at 11 a.m. Friday— the day before Veterans Day — in a family plot at Woodlawn Cemetery in West Palm Beach.
The commercial flight carrying Tiny’s casket came Wednesday to Palm Beach International Airport. To a city he surely would not have recognized. And to a hero’s welcome from people whose grandfathers were toddlers when a Japanese mortar dropped into Tiny’s foxhole in July 1944 during the battle for the Japanese island of Saipan.
People who didn’t know him felt compelled to honor him, because they figured when he died for their grandfathers, he died for them.
Twin water cannons from fire trucks sprayed the arriving Delta Air Lines jet. Inside, passengers already knew what was coming — and why. The flight’s pilot, himself a 25-year veteran, had alerted them when the plane left Atlanta that the passenger in uniform, the one they couldn’t miss, was escorting home the remains of a hero. The cabin had grown silent. And it fell silent again when the pilot repeated his announcement on arrival in West Palm Beach.
As 1st Sgt. Roddue Hamilton, who’d accompanied the flag-draped casket all the way from Hawaii, stood up, he said later, the cabin erupted in cheers. Perhaps not appropriate for the moment, but heartfelt nevertheless.
“Bittersweet,” Hamilton said.
Palm Beach Post online: “Tiny” Sowell photo gallery: pbpo.st/tinyphotos
When the gate opened, workers removed the protective covering and exposed the flag draped casket of the 5-foot-6, 125-pound 21-year-old.
The Florida National Guard honor escort approached.
Step, step, step.
Hands on casket handles.
Saluting Tiny were honor guards from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and Palm Beach County Fire Rescue. A bagpipe brigade in full kilt, its rendition of “Amazing Grace” rising even above the whining jet engines. Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution. Airport workers. And elected officials who on this day would gladly concede that none of them was even remotely the most important person there.
The motorcade pulled out of the airport property and wound its way to Northwood Funeral Home, at the north end of Broadway.
There, sheriff’s motorcycles parked in the median. The deputies stood and saluted when that same Florida National Guard honor escort walked Tiny in.
Inside, Lewis Sowell Jr. and other relatives talked quietly, as people do in such places. It is Lewis, a nephew of Tiny who was born 14 years after he was killed, who had supplied the DNA that made the exact match. And who had told the representative of the military that perhaps this was money well spent on others. And who had been told in no uncertain terms, “Sir: All soldiers deserve the right to come home.”
In the funeral home chapel, the casket was partially open. Lining its bottom: a steel case bearing the remains. Above that: a brand-new and empty uniform — with a name tag: “Sowell.”
“That’s what you do,” said Hamilton, the military escort, himself a veteran of battle. “We never stop until each and every one comes home. I’m sure they’d have done the same for me.”
Lewis Jr. had left Savannah at 4 a.m. so he could be on the runway when the plane touched down.
“I’m just overwhelmed,” he said later. So many things moved him: the bagpipers and honor guards at the airport, and the scatterings of people who lined the motorcade route here and there, perhaps waving a flag or just placing a hand over a heart as the hearse passed.
What would Tiny think?
“He’d be proud,” his nephew said. “He’d be happy to be home.”
The funeral of Richard Gordeon “Tiny” Sowell is set for 11 a.m. Friday at the family plot at Woodlawn Cemetery. The public is welcome to attend.