32nd Infantry ‘Red Arrow Division’ - First In, Last Out
Pfc. R.L. Owens was in water up to his neck in a jungle in New Guinea and the Japanese were laying down heavy fire on his company. It was December 18, 1942. He was fortunate enough to have a log to protect him from enemy fire, but shrapnel caught him in the nose and he “bled a lot, but continued to help out his men.” He spent several weeks in a field hospital due to his injury and malaria on Good Enough Island, where Army hospitals had been set up to treat the casualties. He said the running joke was that Good Enough Island was “good enough for you, but not for me.” After recovering, he was returned to the front lines where he fought for two more years.
R.L. Owens was born in Comanche, Texas April 27, 1920. His dad was an oilfield worker. He had two sisters and a half-brother. He registered for the draft one month after Pearl Harbor and was inducted into the Army on January 8, 1942. After 13 weeks of basic training in Camp Roberts, California, he was assigned to the 32nd Infantry Division, 128th Infantry, Co. G and shipped out of Ft. Ord, California on the USAT Monterey and reached Port Adelaide, Australia in May 1942. In July 1942, they were moved 900 miles to Camp Tamborine near Brisbane. In September R.L. was flown with his company to New Guinea (the second largest island in the world next to Greenland) to begin his long stint in combat. He was trained as a rifleman, bazooka launcher and sniper.
R.L. said “you had to get used to jungle noises and his company had to have guards all night”. Many of the men became so frightened that they “couldn’t take it anymore and started shooting.” He was nearly shot by one of his own men. One night he and two others were picked for “forward guard duty” and got pinned down by enemy fire. He noted that the Japanese would try to kill anyone trying to aid or retrieve a wounded man on the field of battle. That night they had to “lay very still in the bushes” and they “could hear the Japanese soldiers talking.” They realized their company had pulled out and had no idea which way to go to find them. They found a communications wire and followed it back and “wound up right where their company was camped.” R.L. said “his Captain was so happy to see them he came up and hugged them all and said “I thought you guys were goners!” R.L. said he “had a lot of buddies wounded” and that he “fired a lot of rounds but wasn’t sure how many enemy he hit.” R.L. also had to guard a Japanese prisoner one night and stopped him from escaping.
All of the 9,825 men from the 32nd infantry were casualties of the New Guinea Campaign due to either combat or illness. R.L. was awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Presidential Unit Citation and numerous other awards.
He also had a stint as a Palace Guard for General Douglas McArthur. Although still a PFC (all promotions had been frozen), he “had earned enough overseas points to go home”. He arrived in McLean, Texas in July 1944 and was eventually discharged in October 1946. He made his way to Plainview, Texas where he met his future wife, Oleta at the 1st Assembly of God. He was 25 and she was only 15 when they married. They were blessed with 2 boys and 2 girls. He worked at Safeway Stores for 30 years, and at 52 years old went back to preaching. He said he “had done a little preaching before the war.” He started in Lorenzo and preached in many small towns in West Texas before finally retiring. Oleta passed away in October, 2003.
R.L. was featured in the book Almost a Family by Pulitzer Prize winning author John Darnton in 2011. John was only eleven months old when his father Barney, a war correspondent for The New York Times, was killed in WWII. His dad was on the same ship on which R.L. was stationed. He was one of the last to see Barney alive.
In 2013, R.L. was selected to go on the Texas South Plains Honor Flight accompanied by his daughter, Sharita Hatch. He noted that it “was the greatest trip that he’d ever been on.” The National Aerospace Museum was his favorite stop on the 3 day tour.
Respectfully submitted by
Larry A. Williams
Veterans Liaison Co-Chair
Texas South Plains Honor Flight