To Settle a Score


Thirty-five years ago, Rogue Valley native John Wayne Rowden died protecting his fellow Marines in the battle for Hue City, South Vietnam. His memory survives in the hearts of his comrades and his family

Mail Tribune - February 23, 2003

Smoke drifting up from the smoker fashioned out of an ancient refrigerator at McKee Bridge on the Applegate River signaled that another batch of venison jerky soon would be on its way.

After being carefully wrapped by Harvey and Grace Rowden, the smoked jerky was mailed to their son, John Rowden, 21, a Marine Corps private stationed in Southeast Asia early in 1968.

"He sure liked his dad’s jerky," recalled Grace Rowden, now 79, whose husband of more than 50 years died late in 1999. "We’d cut it up and smoke it in that old refrigerator.

"We made sure we kept sending it off to him," she added. "He shared it with the boys."

The boys were members of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, an outfit he joined in mid-November, 1967.

At the end of January 1968, the company, known in military shorthand as Golf 2/5, entered Hue City in what was then the northern tip of South Vietnam. Depicted in the 1987 movie "Full Metal Jacket," and considered by many military history buffs as the worst urban warfare ever endured by the Corps, the battle waged on until the end of February that year.

When the fighting stopped, more than 800 Americans, both Marines and U.S. Army soldiers, were dead with another 5,000 wounded. Eight thousand North Vietnamese soldiers were also killed.

One of the American casualties was Pvt. Rowden, killed Feb. 10 in an alley while providing cover fire for Marines pinned down in an urban ambush.

During the 35th anniversary reunion of Golf 2/5 earlier this month at Jacksonville, Fla., many of the "boys" who had savored that deer jerky signed a card for Grace Rowden. They wanted her to know that John Rowden, who posthumously received the Silver Star for his courage, remained in their hearts.

"He will always be one of us," said Barney Barnes, 56, a former Golf 2/5 squad leader now living in Tulsa, Okla.

"There isn’t a doubt in my mind that, if it hadn’t been for his action, me and three or four other guys wouldn’t be here to talk about it today," he added. "He paid the supreme price."

Mike Ervin, 55, of Annandale, Va., one of the two Marines who braved bullets to retrieve Rowden’s body, agreed.

"John was instrumental in saving my life," said Ervin, who works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Washington, D.C. "I like to think that his life goes on through me. He is living through my kids, through my grandchildren.

"The Marines who were there with him, they will always remember John Rowden," he added.

Named after the actor, John Wayne Rowden was born in Medford on July 7, 1946. The second oldest of four brothers, he loved to hunt and fish the upper Applegate River drainage.

"He loved the Applegate Valley," Grace Rowden said. "He just loved being outdoors."

On one wall in her Ruch home, where the family moved after John’s death, is the mounted head of a large four-point mule deer buck.

"I shot that one in 1953 — over by Bly," she said, smiling briefly as she recalled that hunting trip with her family. "But John, he got some nice deer, all right."

His preferred rifle was a .30-30, sighting with his left eye.

"When he went into the Marines, they tried to get him to shoot right-handed like most people do," she said. "He wasn’t left-handed but he shot that way.

"When they let him shoot left-handed, he hit the bull’s-eye every time," she added. "So they let him shoot left-handed."

He joined the Corps on June 12, 1967, a few days after graduating from Medford Senior High School.

He would never return to the Applegate Valley.

"John told me he had to go because he had a score to settle," his mother said.

That score was his older brother, Marine Corps Pfc. James Herbert Rowden. He was 21 when he was killed in combat March 5, 1966, near Quang Nagai in South Vietnam. The oldest of the Rowden sons was the first serviceman from Jackson County to die in combat in Vietnam. He left a wife and two children.

John Rowden went through basic training and advanced infantry training and was in South Vietnam by Nov. 9, 1967, less than five months after swearing in.

He joined Golf 2/5 around Veterans Day that year. The unit already was a veteran of battles. It suffered more than a dozen men killed and nearly two dozen wounded in a battle a few weeks before arriving at Hue City.

Among those replacing Marines who had been killed or wounded were John Rowden and Mike Ervin.

"One thing that stands out in my mind was that John was an outstanding shot," recalled Barnes, who has worked for an insurance company for 30 years.

"Boy, could he shoot. Back down at An Hoa (village), when we had slack time, we would always set up targets and have shooting contests. I do not believe anyone in the company ever beat John."

Ervin recalled the deer jerky from the Applegate Valley that Harvey and Grace Rowden sent to their son.

"We all lived for our mail," Ervin said. "That deer jerky John got was unique. Nobody else ever got anything like that. His parents had to put in some time and effort to make that jerky."

After a steady diet of C rations, smoked venison was a real treat, he added.

Golf 2/5 entered the southern section of Hue City on the last day of January. Ervin, then a private first class, recalled the market square plaza and buildings were peppered with bullet holes; a disabled tank was resting against a tree on one side of the street.

And he remembered seeing the body of a Vietnamese man lying in the plaza near a water fountain with an arm reaching toward the heavens.

On Feb. 10, Ervin was back on that same street, in a squad led by Barnes patrolling near the plaza.

"The street looked the same," Ervin said. "The tank was still where it had been weeks earlier. The only thing different was the body was now gone."

Barnes, then a lance corporal, with Pfcs. Robert Setlack and Don Davis, began moving cautiously in a staggered formation up the east side of the street while Ervin and radioman Pfc. Bernardo "Cookie" Lopez took the west side.

Barnes was in the lead when Ervin screamed, "Ambush!" just as automatic weapons opened up on the squad.

A barrage of bullets from one enemy soldier missed Ervin as he ran for cover.

"He was either a bad shot, my reaction was so fast he only found air where I was once standing or he got buck fever when he popped up out of that foxhole and didn’t take time to aim," Ervin said.

Lopez wasn’t so lucky. He was shot in the face, yet continued to man the radio.

One round smashed into the M-16 rifle Barnes carried, shattering the stock and trigger mechanism.

"I dove for the nearest cover — an alleyway, not much over 8 feet wide and closed with a piece of tin at the far end," Barnes said. Setlack and Davis were hot on his heels.

"I stood up and tried to look around the corner, but they had me zeroed in and cranked off another burst that hit the concrete wall right where my head was, missing me again by a matter of inches," Barnes said. "I remember Mike (Ervin) hollering across the street to get back down and stay down."

Ervin climbed atop a building where he began to lob hand grenades, silencing the main gun emplacement. Still, the squad continued to be pinned down by small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

But other members of the Golf 2/5 were on their way, thanks to Lopez.

"Cookie had done a good job," Ervin said of the wounded radio operator.

Two Marines coming to their aid were John Rowden and Tony Threet.

"I hollered at John and Tony to stay on that side of the street, that it was just too dangerous to cross," Barnes said.

But the two Marines were intent on helping their comrades.

"All of a sudden, I look up and here comes John and Tony zigzagging across the street," Barnes said. "There was an open marketplace right next to the alleyway where we were. John made it. Tony tried to make our alleyway, but was hit just as he reached us."

Struck in the shoulder, Threet went into shock. Barnes immediately applied a bandage to the wound.

"I looked around for an exit wound but saw none, so I took my shirt off to keep him warm and laid him in my lap and propped his feet up on his helmet and just tried to reassure him that he was OK," Barnes said, adding, "He died in my arms."

In his alley, Rowden continued his battle against the North Vietnamese Army regulars.

"As all this was going on, John was firing away, keeping the NVA at bay, protecting our flank," Barnes said.

Rowden yelled that he was hit and couldn’t get up, Barnes said.

"I hollered for him to try and find some cover, that we would try and get to him," he said. "He kept firing and firing."

When three Marines attempted to run over to help Rowden, one was hit. His companions grabbed him and raced back for cover, Barnes said.

"John called out again, ‘I'm hit again,’ " Barnes said. "But he was still firing. Then his firing stopped."

When the Marines called out to Rowden again, there was no response.

By this time, more reinforcements began to arrive. Under a cover of a smoke screen, Barnes, Davis and Setlack picked up Threet’s body and ran across the street.

"They were waiting for us," Barnes said. "You could hear the rounds whizzing by."

Setlack was knocked down by a shot in the elbow but managed to reach the relative safety of the other side.

Company Commander Capt. Chuck Meadows, now a colonel retired in Washington state, asked for volunteers to retrieve Rowden’s body.

Davis and Ervin stepped forward. Discarding their rifles, they raced across the street under cover of smoke and suppressing fire.

When they returned with Rowden’s body, Ervin sat down. Tears began to roll down his cheeks.

He was not alone.

"It's a feeling of helplessness that I shall never forget," Barnes said. "I started to weep, then I started crying like a baby.

"Those two brave young Marines died because they were trying to help their buddies."

Back in the Applegate Valley, in the second such visit in two years, a Marine knocked on the door of the Rowden home. More tears were shed.

A day later, a draft notice arrived for the Rowdens’ third son, Douglas, 19.

Figuring they had sacrificed enough for war, the Rowdens sought and received a hardship deferment for Douglas. Neither he nor youngest brother, Malcom, would be drafted.

John Rowden was buried alongside his older brother in Memory Gardens in Medford on Feb. 29, 1968. Their father, a Navy veteran of World War II, is now buried by his sons.

"They were patriotic," Grace Rowden said. "That’s what John went in for."

That, and to settle a score.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at

‘Conspicuous gallantry’

Tucked away in Grace Rowden’s family keepsakes is a bundle of letters that son John Rowden wrote while he was in the Corps.

He wrote faithfully, sending letters nearly once a week.

"I’ve still got them all," his mother said. "But they are hard to read, even after all this time. I still can’t do it."

Also tucked away are the Silver Star and Purple Heart medals posthumously awarded to him when he fought to save fellow Marines on Feb. 10, 1968.

Accompanying the Silver Star is a citation for the rifleman in Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division.

"During Operation Hue City, Pvt. Rowden’s company was maneuvering along a street near the edge of the city when it was taken under intense enemy semi- automatic and automatic weapons fire which inflicted several casualties and temporarily pinned down the lead squad," it reads.

"With complete disregard for his own safety, Pvt. Rowden moved forward to assist his beleaguered companions. As he moved across the street, he was wounded by automatic weapons fire in both legs."

Realizing that he could not move and that any attempt to help him would result in further casualties, he elected to hold his position and provide cover fire for other Marines who were wounded and in an open area, it stated.

"Undaunted by the intense enemy fire, Pvt. Rowden calmly held his position, inflicting numerous casualties on the enemy until he was mortally wounded."

He was cited for "conspicuous gallantry" in the document signed by then Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Leonard F. Chapman Jr.