An Airman in a Sailor Suit: Charles R. Lowman, Sergeant, U.S. Army Air Corps, WWII
Published 4:30 pm Friday, May 6, 2022
When the author first interviewed the late Charles R. Lowman in 2017, he stated, “You know, I spent the better part of two years in the Army Air Corps during WW II but I was on a ship the whole time and wore a sailor’s dungarees and hat.”
When Charles R. Lowman was drafted in 1943, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. He never expected to spend the next two years on a ship in the Pacific theater. As an Airborne Radar Specialist, Lowman became part of the top-secret Operation Ivory Soap [see the author’s column in the April 30 edition of The Andalusia Star-News]. The operation had its beginnings right after the Allies had defeated the Germans in North Africa in late 1943.
With few fixed aircraft repair facilities in the Pacific theater, the Army Air Corps realized that they needed aircraft repair facilities that could move with the various island invasions. Once the plans for Operation Ivory Soap were approved, six Liberty ships were modified at Brookley Field Army Air Base in Mobile, Alabama. They were gutted and fitted out as Aircraft Repair Ships. As a part of the operation, 18 auxiliary vessels were converted to Aircraft Maintenance Ships. Lowman and some 5,000 men from various military services were trained for five months at the Grand Hotel at Point Clear, Alabama. The operation was so secret that most of the men involved did not know the entire scope of Ivory Soap.
Charles Rowell Lowman was born in the Searight community, just north of Andalusia, Covington County, Alabama, on April 25, 1923. His parents were Benjamin Edmond and Agnes Sturgis Lowman. Charles had two siblings, Georgia Lowman [Mathews] and Merle Lowman [Shreve]. He attended Andalusia city schools and was in the first graduating class from the new Andalusia High School in May 1940. Charles was one of 21 young men selected to attend the University of Alabama under the Defense Training Act. At the University he studied radio and electronic technology for 21 weeks. Upon completion, he was assigned to Brookley Field near Mobile for further training.After training was completed at Brookley, Lowman was sent to the University of Florida where he studied the new radar that was beginning to be installed aboard aircraft.
The training of Airman Charles R. Lowman took a different turn at this point. He would train with other airmen for the next five months at the Grand Hotel under the leadership of Lt. Col. Mathew Thompson. Upon completion of their work at Point Clear, the men were assigned to the new Aircraft Repair Ships. Charles joined the 1st Aircraft Repair Unit aboard the SS Major General Robert Olds.
The ships and men of Operation Ivory Soap got underway on July 10, 1944.
Lowman recalled that he always dressed in sailor’s dungarees and wore a white sailor hat.
The Olds traveled to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and then through the Panama Canal to Hawaii, where they loaded supplies. After they left Hawaii, the SS Olds and the other ships of Operation Ivory Soap took part in invasions at Guam, Tinian, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the Philippines. They helped keep the Pacific fleet of B-29 bombers and P-51 fighters in the air. Countless planes managed to rejoin the fight after a quick repair job by these airmen turned sailors. Each ship carried two large R-4B Sikorsky helicopters This early shipboard experiment with helicopters fulfilled the critical role of locating downed aircraft and flying injured flyers to field hospitals. They were also used to ferry mechanics, electricians and other technicians, along with spare parts, to remote islands when needed.
Charles recalled, “We were lucky that we were never attacked, especially by the kamikazes. They sunk lots of U.S. ships at Okinawa. We were almost sunk by a typhoon in late 1945.” Between seven and 10 U.S. and Allied ships were sunk during that typhoon. Lowman recalled that the typhoon wrecked the interior of the Olds, leaving most of its repair machinery torn loose and destroyed.
After the war was over, Charles returned to the States and enrolled at the University of Alabama. He decided to transfer to the Alabama Polytechnic Institute [now Auburn University] where he received his Bachelor of Electrical Engineering. While he was studying at Auburn, Charles worked summers at Alabama Electric Cooperative [AEC] as a lineman’s helper. After graduation, he returned to AEC full time as a field engineer.
Charles Lowman worked there for the next 38 years until his retirement in 1988. For the last 18 of those 38 years, he was the General Manager. During that time, AEC expanded and grew its generation capacity. Charles also oversaw some of the most perilous times for AEC [now called PowerSouth]. Throughout the toughest of times, he was always loved by his employees.Earl McBryde, retired Administrative Systems Manager, said, “Charles was one of the best people I’ve ever met and a strong leader.” The late John Howard, who had been VP of Power Production, said that Charles was known for his amazing memory. “At one meeting, when they were trying to recall some information from a previous meeting, Charles reached into a desk drawer and withdrew a green notebook, and quoted the decision.” Howard said, “I think a good bit of Charles’ memory resided in that little green book.”
Larry Avery, retired VP of Engineering, remembered Charles as a masterful CEO, steering AEC through some of its toughest times. Avery recalled, “Mr. Lowman was a quiet man but would always speak to you. He knew your name soon after you began work there. Throughout the times when we were starting up new generation units and finances were tight, he remained the same kind, considerate person… Lowman started out as a field engineer and evidence of his work could be seen throughout the system. When I or any other young engineer made a technical observation around Mr. Lowman about our transmission, generation or distribution system, we were very careful. He knew a great deal about the technical and administrative aspects of AEC’s operation.”
A . G . Palmore, retired VP of Administration and Finance, recalled, “Charles Lowman was the right man at the right time for AEC and the challenges it faced in the ‘1970s and ‘80s. He was a good negotiator, he was level headed with a cool demeanor and always remained calm.”
When Charles Lowman retired in 1988, the Tombigbee Power Generation Plant was renamed “The Charles Lowman Power Plant” in honor of his 38 years of outstanding leadership at AEC. Charles published a book in 1991, “Power Pioneers – AEC’s First 50 Years.”
Charles Rowell Lowman died on January 10, 2018 at the age of 94. His funeral was held on January 14 with burial at Andalusia Memorial Cemetery. He was survived by his wife of 65 years, Effie Adams Lowman; daughters Nora [Lloyd] Culp of Dozier, Alabama; and Ruth [Lance] Nail of McAllen, Texas; three grandchildren, one great-grandchild and numerous nephews and nieces. Effie Lowman died January 1, 2021.
Author’s note: My father, Frank Vick, once worked at AEC when Charles Lowman was the General Manager. He spoke of Mr. Lowman as a man of quiet competence, who knew every employee by name. My dad said that when Mr. Lowman discussed a work project, he was as knowledgeable about the technical information as were his workers.
[Sources: Wikipedia; usmm.org, “The Top-Secret Ivory Soap,” by Bruce Felknor; the author’s interview with Charles Lowman, 2017.]