- By Eliot Kleinberg Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
A Japanese mortar shell killed Tiny Sowell. Amid withering enemy fire, the shattered body of the 5-foot-6, 125-pound pride of Palm Beach High had to be left in a foxhole on the west slope of Saipan’s Hill 721. He was just 21 years old.
The decades have taken Tiny’s pals and his family. But a nation does not forget. After seven decades, West Palm Beach is about to welcome Tiny home.
The remains of Richard Gordon Sowell are scheduled to arrive at Palm Beach International Airport at 11:52 a.m. Nov. 8 aboard a Delta Airlines flight. The remains will be transferred with full military honors to a hearse, which will travel to Northwood Funeral Home, 5608 Broadway, West Palm Beach. For people interested in lining the route, it is scheduled to north on Australian Avenue to 45th Street, east to Broadway, and north to 56th Street. The funeral is set for 11 a.m. at the family plot at Woodlawn Cemetery. The public is welcome to attend.
Earlier this year, Lewis Sowell Jr., born 14 years after his uncle died, learned the DNA swab he’d submitted some two years earlier was an exact match. And Tiny was going to be buried properly.
“I said at the time, ‘This is really heroic and great, but there’s so many (current) veterans that come back killed or missing a leg. This is going to cost a fortune,’ ” Lewis Jr. recalled Oct. 25. “The guy interrupted me and said, ‘Sir: All soldiers deserve the right to come home.’ ”
“One of the city’s most popular young men.”
Tiny was one of about 200 people from Palm Beach County who died in a war that swept carnage and heartbreak across the breadth of the globe and brought it right down to the street corner.
Palm Beach County now has about a million and a half residents. Back then it had perhaps 100,000. That made the deaths far more personal.
That was the way with Tiny.
A small story on Sunday, Aug. 13, 1944, said the War Department had alerted the Sowells the day before that he was killed in action back on July 7. It called Tiny “one of the city’s most popular young men.”
Born in December 1922 in Quincy, west of Tallahassee, he was the youngest of four brothers and three sisters.
“They were all tall but him. I guess he was just the runt,” Lewis Jr. said. “Growing up, I never heard of ‘Richard.’ It was always “Tiny.’ That’s what everyone in town called him.”
His father, Charles, was 61, considerably older than his 39-year-old mother Jimmie, who was mother to all seven siblings. A first wife had died young of scarlet fever.
Tiny wasn’t even a year old when his father, who operated a tobacco farm in Quincy, died in September 1923. He was four when the family moved in 1927 to West Palm Beach, not too long before the crash but still a booming area.
“They said it was the land of opportunity,” Lewis Jr. said.
The Sowell family — it’s pronounced like “Powell” — settled at 734 Ardmore Road, just a mile and a half south of Palm Beach High.
On a rainy night, June 30, 1936, in front of 500 boxing fans at the American Legion arena, “Little Tiny Sowell, 75 pounds, was too smart” for his 82-pound opponent, The Palm Beach Post reported. It called Tiny, then just 13, “a sweet little boxer for his size.”
A photograph shows him in boxer shorts and cloak, clasping his hands above his head in victory.
Another news clip from March 1934, when Tiny was just 11 and weighed just 65 pounds, said he’d won a match in “the best exhibition of ring strategy and mature footwork.”
Despite his height, he also would play on an American Legion Junior baseball team that won a league championship in 1938.
Tiny attended Palm Beach High, in the complex on “the hill” that now houses the Dreyfoos School of the Arts. There, he was a mascot for the Palm Beach High football teams and was all-state in baseball and basketball.
“I, Charles Brady, bequeath to ‘Tiny’ Sowell at least five inches of my height,” one senior quipped on the “Last Will and Testament” page of the 1939 Palm Beach High yearbook. Another willed “my size and athletic ability to Tiny ‘Stink’ Sowell.”
Yearbook pictures show Tiny and other cheerleaders tossing each other in the air. An entry says he was president of the sophomore class, a member of Key Club, and “Welcome wherever he goes, and valued for himself.”
The Historical Society of Palm Beach County has the yearbook that was co-owned by Tiny and brothers Lewis and Julian. Research director Nicholas Golubov found the brothers’ names scrawled in the flyleaf.
“I feel like I have just seen a ghost,” Golubov said later.
Tiny got into the University of Florida and joined the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity. A photo shows him smiling in front of the frat house. But in March 1943, as a sophomore, he dropped out. He signed up at nearby Camp Blanding, and by December he already was overseas, as were two of his three brothers. Lewis was an air gunner in Europe, and Julian was in special services. Charles Lindsay, the oldest brother, was past the age to serve.
Tiny would fight in seven major battles, in places he likely never had heard of on Ardmore Road. In the Marshall Islands, he fought at Wotje and Kwajalein. And in the Mariana Islands, he went to Saipan.
A gold star
For the Allies, the tiny Japanese out island, about 1,600 miles east of Manila and nearly as far south of Tokyo, lay in a critical location. Seizing it would mean a strategic air base close enough for new long-range B-29 bombers to reach Japan’s home islands. Holding it was, for its fervent Japanese defenders, not negotiable.
On June 15, 1944, U.S. Marines stormed the beach. It would be July 9 before they were able to corner their enemy on the island’s northern end and, overcoming a desperate banzai charge, raise the Stars and Stripes.
Tiny wasn’t there.
He’d been a forward spotter with the 295th Joint Assault Signal Company, 3rd Battalion, 106th Infantry Division. He was near “Bloody Acres,” a nickname for a killing field where Japanese counterattacked across the Tanapag Plain. Two days before the Marines raised that U.S. flag on July 9, a mortal shell hit his foxhole, killing him and a naval liaison officer.
Lewis Jr. has heard the family story, so many times repeated.
“When you see in the movies that the soldiers come in coat and ties? My grandmother saw them and said, ‘Well, one of my boys is gone.’ ”
Just after the battle, a November 2014 military memo says, grave registration teams searched the Tanapag Plain. Amid torrential rain and with the field strewn with thousands of dead Japanese soldiers, they were unable to find and recover Tiny’s body.
The military did send his family toilet articles, ID tags, a billfold, photos, a mirror, a money belt, letters, shoes, a pocket dictionary and his New Testament.
Tiny was awarded the Good Conduct Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and Bronze Star, and the World War II Victory Medal. And the Purple Heart. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent a letter of praise. The military sent a then-48-star American flag.
The University of Florida issued a certificate saying Tiny’s name had been “enshrined” on a roll of honor, “with the hope that generations yet unborn may be inspired to stand for the same principles for which he so nobly fought.”
Palm Beach High framed a collection of photos of men killed in World War II, and the dates and circumstances of their deaths. It now hangs, with other memorabilia, in the downtown West Palm Beach waterfront museum of the Palm Beach High School Historical Association.
Back on Saipan, a June 15, 2017, military medical examiner’s report says, military teams “covered the island” from 1947 to 1948 but couldn’t find Tiny.
In June 1949, an officer would discover unidentifiable remains in a foxhole. Found alongside were remnants of a helmet, a poncho, a pair of size 7D GI-issue shoes, a mess spoon and a green fountain pen: “Majestic Super Point.”
The remains, by then just bones, were given an identifying designation of X-29. They were shipped to Hawaii and interred in December 1949 at the “Punch Bowl,” the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, near Pearl Harbor on Oahu. They were placed in Section P, Grave 629. Burials were with full military honors.
Tiny’s name is among several from Saipan on a wall at the “Courts of the Missing.”
Initially, the family was told there simply were no remains. In April 1945, Lt. Hobart Camp visited Tiny’s sister, Hazel Sowell Gorham. He’d been in the same observation post and saw Tiny hit. Hazel would write numerous letters to the military over the years, pressing to know whether Tiny’s remains had been identified. But, Tiny’s nephew Lewis Jr. said last month, “The answer came back every time. ‘No.’ ”
“Realizing the extent of your grief and anxiety,” Lt. Col. W.E. Campbell wrote mother Jimmie Sowell on July 20, 1949, “it is not easy to express condolence to you who gave your loved one under circumstances so difficult that there is no grave at which to pay homage.”
For Veterans Day in 2000, Bobby Riggs, who’d been president of Palm Beach High’s Class of 1943 and who would die at 79 just four years later, recalled Tiny and so many of his friends who’d gone off to war, and the few who hadn’t come back. He said he’d often tried to find Tiny’s grave, “but I never did.”
But a nation does not forget.
“An exact match.”
Jimmy Williams, a Palm Beach High grad and a longtime unofficial West Palm Beach historian who turns 80 in May, recalls taking on a Palm Beach Post paper route in 1947 or 1948. On his route was the car dealership where the Sowell brothers worked.
“Lewis sold used cars and Julian sold the new,” Jimmy recalled last month.
Being a smart entrepreneur, even at the ripe age of 9, Jimmy asked Lewis if he had any other siblings who might be interested in a subscription. But, Jimmy said, “He told me he that his brother had been killed during the war.”
The decades passed. Jimmie, the mom, died in 1960. Charles Lindsey Sowell died in 1985, Lewis in 1998 and Julian in 2007.
In 2015, Lewis Jr., who for years had operated Sandpiper Interiors in Palm Beach, moved from Lake Clarke Shores to Savannah, Ga. Soon afterward, he got a call out of the blue. About Tiny.
“They told me that possibly they had found some remains. At the time I said, ‘I don’t know if you did or not. The story I heard is there are no remains.’ They sent me a DNA kit, which is amazing. And I did the swab thing and I sent it back.”
The military had started using DNA to identify unknown fallen soldiers in 1991, starting with Vietnam and Korea, Tim McMahon said from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
McMahon said about 71,000 service members from World War II still have yet to be either positively identified or recovered.
“Some of them we haven’t found the airplanes. Some of them, are like this case, sitting as unknowns in the Punch Bowl,” he said.
In August 2015, Tiny’s remains were removed to the military’s nearby DNA lab. They were compared with Lewis’ swab and dental records.
“They said, ‘Sometimes we’re 50 percent sure. Sometimes we’re 75 percent sure,’ ” Lewis Jr. said. “It was an exact match.”
The military officially confirmed the identity on June 30.
Just in the budget year that ended Sept. 30, the military used DNA to identify 201 people, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency spokesman Jesse Romero said from Hawaii.
“Sometimes they ask us to re-inter them in the Punch Bowl or wherever they were,” Romero said. “Sometimes they ask us to bury them back home.”
When Sowell’s remains arrive at PBIA, the coffin will be draped in a contemporary uniform with Tiny’s name on it. A soldier will accompany it. A full military detail will slide the casket out of the plane and into a hearse. A motorcade will wind the 5 miles or so to Northwood Funeral Home, which handled the arrangements for all the local Sowells.
Internment is set for 10 a.m. Nov. 10, a Friday, at Woodlawn.
Lewis Jr.’s last aunt, Myrtle, Julian’s widow, died in July at age 97. Her ashes will be interred at Woodlawn at the same time as Tiny.
Lewis Jr. said when he’d told her about the possibility of identifying Tiny and reinterring him in West Palm Beach, “She started to cry. I said, ‘Myrtle: Do you think this is the thing to do?’ She said, ‘He was in my wedding as a little boy. It (his death) absolutely destroyed our family. He deserves to come home.’ ”
The remains of Richard Gordon "Tiny" Sowell are scheduled to arrive at Palm Beach International Airport at 11:52 a.m. Nov. 8 aboard a Delta Airlines flight. The remains will be transferred with full military honors to a hearse, which will travel to Northwood Funeral Home, 5608 Broadway, West Palm Beach. For people interested in lining the route, it is tentatively scheduled to go north on Australian Avenue to Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard, east to Flagler Drive, and north to 56th Street. The funeral is set for 11 a.m. Friday at the family plot at Woodlawn Cemetery. The public is welcome to attend.
Sources: Palm Beach Post Archives, Lewis Sowell Jr., Northwood Funeral Home, Ancestry.com, U.S. Defense Department, Historical Society of Palm Beach County, Palm Beach High Historical Association.
Special thanks to The Palm Beach Post’s April Conway.