Lucky Lowman: That Fighter-Pilot Attitude

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson June 15, 2015 00:06

lucky-by-windowFN00015No one has called Wallace E. Lowman anything but “Lucky” for more than 70 years. Not Wallace, not Wally, not Lowman.

“The other P-51 pilots in Kings Cliffe, England, tagged me with that in 1944,” he says, “and that’s who I’ve been ever since.”

But more than good fortune has carried the Valley Springs resident through two wars and 93 full and very active years.

As a fighter pilot he completed 52 missions in World War II and 185 missions during the Vietnam War. He survived a crash landing in England that totaled his P-51 Mustang and bailed out of an F-104 three seconds before it crashed into the side of a mountain.

“Some of it has been luck, I suppose,” he says with an ever-present twinkle in his eye, “but more than that, it has been preparation and what I call the old fighter-pilot attitude.”

Lowman didn’t feel particularly lucky growing up poor in rural Illinois.

Lucky with P-51, Kings Cliffe, England, 1944

Lucky with P-51, Kings Cliffe, England, 1944

Born in 1921, he was raised on a farm that his family lost in 1928. He scrambled for any kind of odd job that might help him, his parents and an older sister survive. “I remember the Red Cross giving us clothes, giving us shoes in the early ’30s…the whole family,” he says. “It wasn’t that much fun.”

He collected milk bottles, ushered in a theater and swept the garage where his dad found work retreading tires. When a buddy told him he could make extra money caddying at a local golf course, he began hitchhiking the two miles out and back each Saturday and Sunday.

A golfer he regularly caddied for would lend him clubs, and by mimicking the swings of those he watched, Lucky developed a good swing of his own. “In high school I was too small for football, and when I went out for basketball, that didn’t work. But I ran the mile on the track team, and by the time I was a senior, I was playing on the golf team too.”

More odd jobs followed Lowman’s 1939 graduation from Lincoln Community High School, then in 1941, a friend told him the local golf pro was taking a job in California. Lucky and three others each paid the man $20 to ride out with him to look for work.

With just two dollars in his pocket, Lowman was dropped at 10th and Wilshire in Santa Monica. Within a week he was working at the Lockheed plant in Burbank.

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, hundreds of thousands of young men enlisted or were drafted into the service. His Lockheed job gave Lowman a defense-industry deferment, and during the plant’s graveyard shift he cut sheet metal for B-17 bombers – the very plane he would escort on bombing runs to Germany two years later.

Lowman felt guilty about not joining the war effort. “I knew I’d like to fly, but you needed two years of college before you could apply to be a cadet,” he explains. “When they dropped that requirement, I decided to try.”

He joined the Army Air Corps in January 1943, and reported to Fort MacArthur in Los Angeles. The rest of that year was a blur of training stops through the south, where he learned to fly everything from the Stearman biplane to the P-40 Warhawk.

Lowman and other members of 20th Fighter Group, Kings Cliffe, England, 1945

Lowman and other members of 20th Fighter Group, Kings Cliffe, England, 1945

Following combat school in Sarasota, Florida, Lowman sailed on the RMS Mauretania for England and an assignment at Kings Cliffe Airfield. There the new second lieutenant became a member of the 20th Fighter Group, 55th Squadron of the 8th Air Force, flying P-51 Mustangs on strafing, long-range-patrol and bomber-escort missions.

“I loved the P-51. It had more horsepower and speed than anything we’d flown,” Lowman says. “I wish I could have flown it later just for pleasure. In World War II, it was a work cockpit, and we always went to work.”

Between November 1944 and April 1945, Lowman completed 52 missions, most protecting B-17s on long-range bombing missions deep in enemy territory.

“On those missions, the sky was just black from all the flak,” he remembers. “Going in, the B-17 pilots would turn their planes over to the bombardiers, and they couldn’t deviate from the bomb run. They would fly into the black and then you’d see them coming out, often on fire, some of them spiraling down.”

Lowman had some close calls. He points out a few in his flight book – starting with his first mission, in which he lost his best friend from flight training.

“Eddy Loetscher and I had serial numbers just one digit off, and we were together all the way through flight school and on to England,” he recalls. “The mission that day was to Metz near the French-German border. Eddy’s group was to escort and strafe, mine just to strafe.

“Eddy had a 500-pound bomb under one wing of his P-51 and a 108-gallon fuel tank under the other for balance. The fuel tank was designed to fall off when the bomb was dropped, or if that didn’t happen, it could be shaken loose by firing the .50-caliber machine guns. Eddy dropped the bomb,” Lowman continues, “and when the tank didn’t drop, he trimmed up to fly level.

“Right then the flight leader dove to strafe, with Eddy – a rookie – following on his wing. When Eddy fired his guns, the tank shook loose, his plane became unbalanced and he went in. A great big ball of fire.”

Last mission's squadron roster, April 21, 1945

Last mission’s squadron roster, April 21, 1945

If ever his nickname was appropriate, it may have been when Lucky flew a strafing mission to southern Germany late in the war.

“A buddy of mine was on the left of the flight leader and I was on the right,” explains the 5-foot-5, 150-pound veteran. “My buddy had been looking into the sun for an hour, so I motioned him to trade places with me. We picked up a train, and he was the first to follow the flight leader down to strafe while I waited for him to clear.

“Well, their guns hit a train car full of ordnance and it blew sky-high – a huge ball of fire that he went straight through … into the ground. I made a hard right, dodging railroad ties and everything,” he remembers. “If I hadn’t traded places with him, it would have been me who went in.”

Lowman and his squadron stayed in England for a time after the German surrender. It was then, while landing after a routine flight at Kings Cliffe, that he experienced the scariest moment of his life.

“I came in a little too far down the runway, shoved the throttle forward on the P-51 and stalled the left wing out,” he recalls. “Torque then took over at very low speed, and I started heading toward a grove of trees, so I pulled the power off. The right wing dug in the ground, the propeller did too and the right landing gear collapsed before I came to a stop.

“The plane was totaled, but I was all right. At least I thought I was. When the flight surgeon arrived and handed me a cup of whiskey, I reached for it and saw that my hand was shaking like a leaf.”

A variety of civilian flying jobs kept Lowman busy after his discharge from the service in 1945, but in 1951, he reenlisted in the Air Force. Although never sent to Korea, he saw duty in Labrador and all around the United States, and began flying jet aircraft. A major by the early 1960s, Lowman flew F-102s in a fighter squadron stationed in the Philippines.

Lucky, center front, Vietnam era

Lucky, center front, Vietnam era

Between duty in the Philippines and a tour in Vietnam, Lowman was stationed in New Mexico flying F-104s. “I was on a training flight over Las Cruces in 1965 or ’66 when my engine quit at 18,000 feet,” he recounts. “I told myself if I didn’t get the engine started by 12,000 feet, I was going to get out. Next thing I know, I’m at 9,000, so I pulled the handle and away I went.

“A half mile beyond me the airplane went in and blew up. I landed on the side of a mountain, and a half hour later a helicopter picked me up. They told me if I had stayed in the cockpit three more seconds, I would have gone into the ground with the plane.”

Lowman served in Vietnam from mid-1969 to mid-1970 as commander of the 1st Special Operations Squadron of the 56th Special Operations Wing stationed at Nakhon Phanom (“We called it Naked Fanny”), an air base across the border in Thailand.

The team flew reconnaissance, rescue and bombing missions in A-1 Skyraiders, single-seat attack planes that carried heavy armament. “We’d target the Ho Chi Minh Trail, dropping everything: napalm, rockets, 500 pounders … firing mini-guns.”

He participated in at least half a dozen helicopter-escort missions to rescue downed U.S. pilots, including one in December 1969 that became one of the Vietnam War’s largest search and rescue missions. It began on a Friday, Lowman recalls, when an F-4 pilot and co-pilot ejected, “each landing on opposite sides of the Nam Ngo River in Laos.”

Vietnam era A-1

Vietnam era A-1

Over the next two days, Lowman and other U.S. pilots flew 176 A-1 sorties and 300 jet sorties to suppress heavy ground fire and protect the downed airmen. The Viet Cong killed the pilot on the second day (his remains were identified in 2007), but the co-pilot, 1st Lt. Woodrow Bergeron, was rescued on Sunday by a helicopter that moved in under a wall of protective smoke laid down by rescue planes.

“I was in the air right above when the helicopter went in and got him,” Lowman adds. “When I knew he was out, let me tell you, I was just elated.”

Did they celebrate? “Are you kidding? A bunch of fighter pilots? I’ll say we celebrated.”

Lowman retired in 1973, having been recognized during his 30-year career with numerous awards and medals, including the Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal, Bronze Star, three Distinguished Flying Crosses and 21 Air Medals.

Some of Lucky's medals

Some of Lucky’s medals

He continued to play golf throughout his time in the military, even winning the Air Force’s 1972 European Match Play Championship in Wiesbaden, Germany. It only seemed natural that his first job after the service was working at a golf course in Arizona.

The twice-divorced veteran moved to Stockton and in 1978 met his current wife, Loretta, on a blind date. A year later they married and moved to Valley Springs near La Contenta Golf Club. From previous marriages, Lucky and Loretta together have six children, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

For a time Lowman worked in marketing at La Contenta. In 1983, he became the assistant golf pro, a job he kept for 20 years.

Today he continues to play golf three days a week. Last summer, at age 92, he shot a 79 at La Contenta, and regularly shoots his age or lower. “Conservatively,” estimates Lowman, he has done this between “800 and 1,000 times.”

How unusual is this? According to the National Golf Foundation, America has 25 million golfers and the average score for men is 96 – which is also an age few of them will reach.  Less than one percent of these golfers, regardless of age, ever shoot par – typically about 72.

There are no stats on how many ever shoot their age, let alone do so repeatedly, as Lowman has done.  Only a handful of excellent golfers defy the odds by playing at that level as they age. It’s both an athletic feat and an actuarial anomaly.

“Shooting your age in your 90s, that’s just amazing,” says Phil Sponseller, head pro at La Contenta.

“It’s very, very rare to do what Lucky does. He’s a great athlete, even at 93. He is amazing.”

He is so appreciated on his home course that the La Contenta Men’s Club named its Player of the Year trophy “The Lowman.” Displayed in a glass case, it’s adorned with a World War II-vintage photo of the pilot and a resin mold of his hands on the grip of a golf club.

The trophy’s inscription honors him for his remarkable accomplishments in the game of golf and for exhibiting “the highest ideals” of integrity and sportsmanship.

“I like the fact that it’s one of the few games where you rarely find anyone who cheats, and you call penalties on yourself,” Lowman says.

“It’s also the camaraderie. Golf is like the business I was in for a long time – being a fighter pilot – you’re around a bunch of guys who like to have fun and do the right thing.”

Lucky and Loretta celebrating her 80th birthday

Lucky and Loretta celebrating her 80th birthday

Lucky has rarely flown since retiring as a lieutenant colonel 42 years ago, but he had the chance to ride in a P-51 a few years back.

“Three or four years ago, a fellow down in Stockton took me up in his restored fighter,” he says. “We flew over the area where I live, over New Melones and the golf course where I play – all at about 400 miles per hour. Man, it was fun.”

Lowman never attended World War II reunions but has participated in reunions of A-1 Skyraider pilots from Vietnam.

“I never thought I might not make it back from Europe or Vietnam or any other place,” says Lowman, reflecting on his long military career and duty in two wars.

“You just don’t think about that. When it’s your turn to fly, you go fly.

“If you lost a buddy, of course it hurt,” he admits. “Everybody that night would hoist one for him. The next morning, though, you’d go out and do your job again. You had an assignment to do, so you just strapped on the airplane and away you went.”

Any regrets about serving his country?

“No, hell no.”

The attitude that brought Lucky Lowman through battle remains with him today.

“I play golf with guys way younger than I am, and I do my best to kick the hell out of them. That’s the fighter-pilot attitude,” he says.

“I’m not taking a backseat to anyone.”

Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson June 15, 2015 00:06
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1 Comment

  1. Robert Conrad April 17, 15:12

    Rereading Richard Drury’s book “My Secret War” in which he mentions the excitement they enjoyed as Col. Lowman became their commander. He was a real pilot that they could respect and protected them. I am proud to have served in the same AF as men as Col. Lowman and General Olds.

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