(In the photo above, Charles Mowbray talks with Leanna Morris, who helped the World War II veteran receive his medals. Photo by Tracy Sahler/Wicomico County Public Schools)
For Charles Mowbray, deciding to share his old battle tales cracked opened history for a group of precocious grade school children attempting to preserve veterans’ stories. For him, helping a friend’s daughters with a school project meant he finally got the recognition he had earned nearly seven decades prior.
The many years before, Mowbray kept all the memories to himself. Better to bottle them up than re-live them.
“Up to three years ago, I wouldn’t even talk about it,” Mowbray said. “It gives you bad dreams. It bothers your nerves to even talk about it.”
But then Allyson Morris, a young girl, the daughter of a neighbor and family friend, asked him to tell her about his experiences for a school project.
“He was very reluctant because he was like, ‘Gosh, how can I talk to young children about the war?’” said Robyn Morris, Allyson’s mother and a teacher at North Salisbury Elementary School.
Because of their grandfather-granddaughter relationship, he couldn’t turn her down. So, little by little, he began sharing his stories.
Mowbray had been a sailor aboard the USS Wilkes-Barre during World War II. He’d enlisted in the Navy to avoid the draft - to get into the branch of military he wanted. The Navy appealed to him because he’d grown up on a river. He went far beyond it: serving at Iwo Jima, Okinawa. He helped rescue sailors from the USS Bunker Hill after kamikazes hit it.
“While this is all going on you pay no attention to it, you do your job,” he said. “In fact you were taught to do five or six jobs in case someone was wounded or something you could take over for him.”
He was in the Tokyo Bay when President Harry Truman signed the peace treaty. But that was all more than 60 years ago.
When Leanna Morris, Robyn’s other daughter, was at North Salisbury teachers assigned a Veterans History Project for the Library of Congress, Mowbray again met with students and told his stories. He shared photos and memorabilia and paper cut-outs of the medals he’d earned for his service, snipped from the pages of catalogs.
In the 67 years since the war, Mowbray had never received his real medals, not even his victory medal. Leanna noticed.
“Leanna had to do a preliminary interview. It was then that we realized he hadn’t gotten his medals,” Robyn said. “Leanna kept asking me, “Mom, why hasn’t he gotten his medals?”
Robyn tried to explain the way sometimes things work out in the adult world: it was an oversight, she said. They called the Navy, but the person they talked to there said it could take up to three years. That wouldn’t cut it for Leanna.
“Leanna is the one that sums it up. She said he fought for our freedom and risked his life to fight for our freedom and he deserves his medals,” she said.
They decided to appeal to a legislator, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, asking if the process could be expedited. After all, the medals were already 67 years late.
Leanna wrote the senator a letter on behalf of herself and her concerned classmates, complete with American flags and stars. An excerpt:
After talking with Mr. Mowbray, we realized there was something missing from his collection of photos and documents - there were no medals! He told us he didn’t know why, but he never received any of them when he was discharged. We decided to try and help him get the medals, bronze stars and ribbons that he earned. When my mom and I called Navy Personnel, they said it would take up to three years to get them. Mr. Mowbray has been waiting for 67 years, and we don’t want him to wait any longer!
... I think he is a true hero who has generously fought for and served our country.
Mowbray was aware he had a team of third-graders trying to get him his medals, because he had to sign off to give them permission. But Robyn was shocked with the response from Mikulski’s office. They weren’t just speeding up the process a bit. After receiving Leanna’s letter, it took them less than a month to get most of the medals approved.
That’s when teachers at North Salisbury began to run script on a secret mission. The senator was to send a representative to the school to give Mowbray his medals in a special ceremony. Leanna was to present them. But, to surprise them, the teachers decided neither should know what was coming.
One of the teachers at the school was watching Steve Hartman on CBS and realized this was exactly the kind of story he covered. She wrote an email Saturday night, and they contacted her Sunday morning, Mother’s Day. They would cover the event.
The school scrambled to put together a program. They told Mowbray the school was holding an event about the students’ documentaries. “I was not expecting a thing,” Mowbray said.
In the assembly, they did talk about other student projects, but Mowbray noticed they kept focusing on him. Something was different. His friends from church and family were there, including his son and grandson, both Navy veterans.
Leanna sat with Mowbray, then they were both called to the front of the auditorium.
“As soon as she saw the medals she jumped right up and down for about a minute. She was hugging me and I was hugging her, too. I was really surprised. I felt almost like breaking out crying,” he said. “I have to give her the credit for getting all these stars and medals.”
He finally received the combat action ribbon, American campaign medal, Asiatic-Pacific campaign medal, the occupation service medal, China service medal, a discharge button, an honorable service lapel pin and, finally, his victory medal. (He's still waiting on a Phillipine liberation medal, he said.)
Though he gives Leanna and her classmates all the credit, Robyn said it’s North Salisbury’s teachers who got the students interested in preserving history, especially saving the stories of WWII vets.
That third-grade students were so invested in history and in helping a veteran floored Mowbray. “It’s really amazing. It was amazing to me when I went to school how interested the kids were in a veteran from World War II.”
To hear Mowbray’s veterans project interview, visit http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/bib/89314.