James Victor Rowney oral history interview, February 7, 2003

Capt. James Victor Rowney, USN (Ret.)
Jonathan Dembo
February 7, 2003

James Victor Rowney - JR
Jonathan Dembo - JD

JD: I'm talking with James Victor "Vic" Rowney, member of the US Naval Academy class of 1941. Vic, I wonder if you'd spend a few moments and talk a little bit about your family background and your early life.

JR: Why sure. I was born in Baltimore, Maryland, November 11, 1917-which, as you might remember, is the year before the Armistice Day on November 11, 1918-and, coincidentally enough, named Victor. [Laughs] My family was of course right over from England and that was the first American born in the family, and of course everyone was anxious for a victory. As I said, it was a coincidence. [Laughs] (1:01, Part 1)

JD: Can you tell me a little bit about what your family background was? What was your father's business?

JR: My father was a musician, a professional musician, but he was also very talented in other arts. I mean, we had an old 1925 Essex, as far as I can remember, you know. When that thing broke down he could put it back together again. He was a pretty good mechanic. Not only that, he was a pretty good photographer and had lots of talents. I wish I had had some of his talents but, then again, I skipped some of the bad things because later in life he had asthma and of course if I'd had asthma I'd never have gone through the Navy. So, it skipped me, but-a funny thing-my son has asthma, so it's a generation thing.

JD: What brought him to the United States? (2:08, Part 1)

JR: His brother and sister had moved to Baltimore very early, like 1905, so my father came in 1912. I had two older brothers and sisters that were born in England in 1907 and 1908 and, as I say, I came along in 1917. What brought him to America: I think my father, as a musician, wanted to go to Hollywood all his life and get into the big movie business. I don't think he was ever successful in doing that. He did go to Hollywood after my mother died in '59 but he could not get a job in the movies. [Laughs] I think he was too old at that time. That was his desire anyway.

JD: And your mother's family? (3:15, Part 1)

JR: My mother's family, she was the thirteenth child of a very large family. My grandmother was born in Edinburgh-so I must be part Scottish-in 1837, and she made it up to 1935, so she was quite elderly before she died. I hope I have some luck like that. [Laughs]

JD: You must have gone to school then in Baltimore?

JR: I went to school in Baltimore, and I went to high school in Baltimore at Baltimore Polytechnic, which was a technical school and very hard-because I took the A course-hard in mathematics, and physics, and mechanics even, at that stage. Most engineering schools would let you into the second year of college after you finished Baltimore Poly because they knew the reputation of that high school. (4:35, Part 1)

JD: Did you play sports in high school?

JR: I tried to play football a little bit, for one year. I was in the band and I played the trumpet also. My father being a musician, we had a family orchestra and I played the trumpet. My brother played the clarinet. My father [mostly played string instruments] but he played the piano. My sister played the violin.

JD: Did you ever play publicly?

JR: We played in church, of course. We played hymns at the Bible class and all that. I did play for a dance band too when I was in high school, which was quite interesting. They even gave me money for it. [Laughs]

JD: It sounds like an unusual background for someone to become interested in a naval career. Can you tell me how you first got interested? (5:47, Part 1)

JR: My older brother, ten years older than I, enlisted in the Navy, I would say about 1927, and had a hard time as a sailor and he didn't like it at all. I don't know why I got interested but I think my interest stemmed with, "Well, I'll show him how to do it," or something like that, [Laughs] "And I won't enlist, I'll go to the Naval Academy." I think that was a little bit of a pressure on me.

JD: I understand that, for many people anyway, it was a hard time to get into the academy. They had to take exams.

JR: We had to take six exams which each took a half a day, three or four hours, so it was quite a week of exams to even get in. Now, some people of course who had a congressional appointment I think it was a little different, but I didn't have one and I was competing in the Naval Reserve, which allowed only twenty-five people in from the whole country. The first year I didn't make it. I stood something like thirty. So I studied the same stuff over again the next year and stood nineteenth, and that's how I got in. [Laughs] (7:27, Part 1)

JD: But you, coming from Baltimore, you knew all about Annapolis. You couldn't get much closer to it than that.

JR: Oh, you could get much closer. I'll tell you about that.

All right, so I got in, and it was hard studying and trying to play football, and I was trying to exceed in athletics also. I can remember being very, very tired every afternoon and trying to study at night and not studying. [Laughs] But I'd had a pretty good background in my high school so I got through all right but, as I say, I wasn't exerting a lot of effort studying because my interests were on other things. That was my error, because I should have been studying harder. (8:37, Part 1)

However, after a while-and I'll deviate a little bit and skip ahead to about. Let's see. I graduated in '41. I went to World War II and-skipping ahead-about '47 I put in for post-graduate school and I was selected to go to post-graduate school. So then the studying became real hard, and my wife said at the time, "I never see you anymore except for dinner. You might as well be at sea." [Laughs] Well, how about that? I had to study pretty hard. But you know in graduate school students are much more set on knowing that they've got to study hard to get good results than the sixteen and eighteen-year-old guys that are just starting college. (9:45, Part 1)

To get back to things, I did have a very interesting time in sports playing lacrosse and football. Of course the rest of my family history, I mean there weren't any athletes that I knew of, so I was breaking new ground for the family. I certainly wasn't a star. It was all guts, you might say. [Laughs] And a desire to achieve, if anything, and not achieving very much. As a matter of fact, the guy that just walked out of here, Ed Malcolm, on one play, just before the Army game while we were practicing, blocked that end, and I was right behind him, and the guy's feet kicked my teeth out. [Laughs] I've spent sixty years with no front teeth. These are the days we didn't wear any helmets, of course. Any face masks, I meant. Of course we had helmets. (11:05, Part 1)

Okay. So I graduated, despite the fact that they said, "Well, you're going to graduate in February now. You'll have to study harder because we're going to cram everything into the last three months." [Laughs] At that time we were in Panama on a destroyer cruise or something and the Germans had just captured Paris, you see, so we were feeling pretty close to it and that's why they wanted to get us out early.

JD: Do you have any recollection of particular teachers at the academy, or classes?

JR: Only one, a gunnery officer. He was a lieutenant commander. No, he was a lieutenant JG, whom I met later as an admiral [Laughs] and worked for him. His name kind of escapes me now. It was interesting having him as a gunnery professor, or something like that, and working for him as an admiral later on. (12:41, Part 1)

JD: What was your family's reaction to you going into the Navy?

JR: To going into the Navy?

JD: And going to Annapolis. Did they support that or oppose that?

JR: Oh, I think they did. You see, I was the first in the family even to think about going to college. My older brother and sister didn't go to college, and my younger brother, two years younger, didn't go to college either. I of course said we didn't have enough money to put me through a regular college and maybe I could relieve that by doing what I want, going to the Naval Academy, and saving them some college expense. I think I had full support from the family. It wasn't, though, that anybody expected any more wars, although I suppose [Laughs] if you read the news about Hitler you couldn't help but think, boy; we're going to get in it sometime. (13:57, Part 1)

JD: So you graduated from Annapolis sixty-two years ago today,-

JR: Yes, I did.

JD: -February 7, 1941, and you must have almost immediately been assigned to a ship.

JR: To the U.S.S. Enterprise, (CV-6), an aircraft carrier.

JD: When did you report and what were your responsibilities?

JR: I reported to the Enterprise in Seattle. She was being refitted and after a few weeks up there we finished refitting the ship and we sailed for San Diego to pick up the air group and go on exercises for the air group. There I met my future wife. I had a few dates with her and wrote letters with her. She was a San Diego girl. Then we left for Hawaiian waters soon after that, about April, '41, and I didn't get back until '43. But she came over to Honolulu and we were engaged in late November. She left at the end of November to go back home and she caught about the last ship or something before the attack, which was rather lucky. (15:51, Part 1)

The Enterprise, as you might remember, had taken a squadron of Marines to Wake Island a few weeks before December 7, mid-to-late November, and we were kind of late getting back in. We were due in on December 6 on a Saturday and most of us were mad when they announced that we would be late in getting home, not until Sunday morning, and then Sunday of course the news broke that we were under attack: "This is no drill." Even some of our plans got shot at by our own people. So they came back and we were ordered to go search for the Japanese.

JD: What was your particular responsibility? (17:05, Part 1)

JR: At that time I was assigned as assistant hangar deck officer under a Lt. Strong. He was out of the class of '29. That was moving the airplanes around and servicing them, and I was ill-equipped of course to do that job. [Laughs] Nobody said anything about airplanes at the Naval Academy and I didn't even have the proper uniforms because I had the full dress and the cocked hat and sword and all that stuff-which cost me a lot of money but I never used them-and [they said,] "Where are your khakis? We just wear khakis out here when we're working." I'd never had a set of khakis. Nobody told me I needed to get a set of khakis. So, okay; we get khakis and we go to work. [Laughs] But the first week was a little bit embarrassing.

JD: Was that a battle station as well? (18:17, Part 1)

JR: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Sure, because when we launched airplanes that was our station.

JD: Can you describe a little bit about what you would do to prepare the planes for an attack?

JR: Well, that of course wasn't our job. Our job was to park the planes, and park those that needed maintenance in a certain section, and park those ready to go in other sections, and park them so that they could be serviced and fueled and so forth and so on.

JD: But the fueling and servicing weren't-? (18:59, Part 1)

JR: The squadrons themselves did all the maintenance and if there was an engine change or something like that they'd have to go back down deep in the hangar. Those were sort of prearranged stations that were necessary for servicing the aircraft. Later on I was changed to the gunnery department because of my request to serve on the gunnery department and qualify as an officer of the deck underway, which the Navy said was a requirement before you could put in to go to Pensacola for flight training, which I wanted to do. (19:46, Part 1)

So that was done, and I was on the guns when the war actually started, and on our trip in late November of '41, a week or so before December 7, our admiral, who happened to be Adm. Halsey, told everybody on all the gun crews, "Now, if you see any periscopes or strange things in the sea, open fire. Don't ask any questions or get authority. I'm giving you authority now. Open fire." So some of our admirals were really alert that something was going to happen, so we weren't kidding around on some of these ships. Why the message didn't get to everybody, who knows. I mean, there are many books written about the "day of infamy" and so forth and so on. [Laughs]

JD: Can you describe the scene as you sailed into Pearl Harbor? First of all, were you on deck? (21:10, Part 1)

JR: Yes, I certainly watched. We went in Sunday night to get refueled because we hadn't practiced refueling at sea, which came immediately and in a hurry later on. We were refueling at sea all the time. So we came back to get refueled which, by the way, was a big mistake of the Japanese, not hitting the fuel tanks instead of the battleships. I mean, if they'd hit the fuel tanks nobody would have moved because there was enough fuel there for ten years to service the Navy.

Anyway, it was a terrible mess, of course, and it's hard to describe it. Certainly that movie is something to see because it's very accurate as far as the picture, the Pearl Harbor movie, very accurate as far as the picture goes. Of course it's all about two Army Air Force guys. [Laughs] But the damage done at Pearl Harbor was certainly a disaster. It's hard to really describe. Oil all over the water, and smoke everywhere, and I don't know that I actually saw anybody swimming but lots of my friends here tonight were swimming. (22:55, Part 1)

Anyway, we had to refuel in a hurry and get back out, so we did. As I say, we weren't successful in sighting anything. Another mistake of a lot of our airplanes that had been airborne-or two or three of them-[was] not following the Japanese back to find out where they were and letting us know. They were trying to shoot down one another instead of sneaking behind them and following them back to their bases. Anyway, that was that part of the war.

JD: How long were you aboard the Enterprise?

JR: I was aboard until February, '43 when I got orders to flight training.

JD: What were the major actions that you were involved in?

JR: The major actions?

JD: Battles.

JR: If I can remember them all. The first were the Kwajalein battles. I think it was around Kwajalein, or the Marshall Islands. No, not the Marshall Islands.; all those islands around Kwajalein. We had an attack in early '42. One of my friends on the ship was killed on that attack. Williamson, one of our classmates.(24:49, Part 1)

JD: What about the Coral Sea?

JR: Yes.

JD: That would have been in May.

JR: Not actually the Coral Sea but several other battles, like Santa Cruz and Guadalcanal and battles around there, we were in. I was assigned to the forty-millimeter guns we had up front, the anti-aircraft guns, and so I had a battle station on the forty-millimeters. One of my close encounters was a diving airplane that looked like he was trying to hit the ship. He was on fire and he was coming straight down and looked like it was really going to hit the ship. The captain was in a big turn. He just missed our battery and we got doused with seawater, and that was our closest one that we experienced while trying to shoot down airplanes. [Laughs]

JD: A lot of ships weren't that lucky. (26:13, Part 1)

JR: After a few of those battles-and I can't even remember them all-of course we were at Midway. I didn't have too much experience there. Most of it was of course our air groups having a lot of experience sinking Japanese carriers. Midway was [in] June, '42.

JD: Where were you assigned after the Enterprise?

JR: To flight training at Pensacola. No, first at Dallas for primary, and I stopped off in San Diego and got married [Laughs] and we had a good respite from the war in the two years that I was in flight training from '43 to '44. Well, it was almost two years, because we were back out again in early '45. [Coughs] My voice is not holding up.

JD: Can I offer you a glass of water?

JR: I guess so. (27:48, Part 1)

[Break in recording]

JD: You had just begun to speak about your flight training in the Navy in 1943. Please continue.

JR: I went to Dallas and we had a funny little incident in Dallas. I was what was called a full lieutenant with two stripes, and some decorations of course, but yet I was a student aviator and the captain at Dallas had some rules that all students would do so-and-so, like carry out the parachute for the instructor, besides your own. [Laughs] It was was all right. We went through that. But, I mean, we'd already had a plebe year. We were lieutenants and we'd been fighting a war. [Laughs] And he says you can't use the O club because you're students. We can't use the officers' club because we're students? Baloney! So one of my friends that had some influence in Washington got that changed in a hurry. [Laughs] (29:09, Part 1)

But anyway, the small planes were pretty tricky and I couldn't wait to get to a bigger plane. We had the "Yellow Peril," we called it. It was a Stearman [Model 75], two wings, of course a thing up there you call the engine, which was a fan, [Laughs] and we'd, you know, glide in and shoot circles and stuff like that. I mean, trying to land in a circle. It was fun. [Laughs]

JD: How long did that last?

JR: That was about three months in primary. Then you went to Pensacola and did secondary airplanes, which are a little bigger, monoplanes and SNJs and stuff like that.

JD: Did you ever crash a plane into the bay?

JR: I never crashed a plane anywhere, in my life.

JD: There used to be a saying, "One a day in Pensacola Bay," in training.

JR: [Laughs] I never crashed a plane anywhere, and I'll get to that too. Anyway, Pensacola was fun. It had a nice officers' club and we'd go there after work and have dinner and all that stuff, so we had a kind of nice time too as a young married couple. (30:55, Part 1)

I was trying to get into fighters, the service fighters, which were at Melbourne, Florida at that time, the F6Fs. I suppose I succeeded all right but they thought I was a little too big and a little too heavy. I am too heavy now. [Laughs] But the flight surgeons were always on you about staying under two hundred pounds, which was a chore for me the rest of my life.

But anyway, I got to Melbourne, three or four classmates with me, and we had a good social time in Melbourne but we did a lot of work in flying also. We had gunnery targets and strafing targets and strafing on another airplane carrying a sleeve. The bullets are painted so that you get. If you have red bullets you get a red mark in the banner that the tow plane is making and the other three guys have different colors. There were some tricky approaches, all kind of stuff that you would do in a dogfight and in a battle. So that was the real stuff. (32:51, Part 1)

I got into an air group that was forming there, that was going out in late '44, headed by one of the Crommelin brothers, a very famous group of brothers from Alabama, five of them, that were all naval officers. Charlie Crommelin was the squadron commander and he was forming this fighter squadron there. I was going to sign up with him-or they were trying to get a group together and I was in the group-however, my wife had some trouble with the first baby and the baby died and she was in particularly bad shape at that time and I requested to be delayed, so they delayed me until the next group. (34:04, Part 1)

Well, the next group trained at Atlantic City and had a field up in Cape Cod, Otis Field, which was an old air force base and an old prisoner of war base or something like that, but it was an airfield and so we used it for training. One of the other Crommelin brothers had that squadron [Laughs] and I'd served with a Crommelin brother on the Enterprise-he was the oldest one and he was the executive officer-so I was quite well-acquainted with the Crommelin family. This was the F6 squadron and it got so big they divided it in half and they said. I was ranked about the third after that. One of my classmates was ranked ahead of me and he was the executive officer. I was sent over to the other squadron that flew Corsairs. That's quite an airplane too. So I flew Corsairs for the rest of World War II.

JD: What ship were you assigned?

JR: We were. Let's see if I can remember. Well, we'll have to skip that one. I've forgotten that. (36:10, Part 1)

JD: Well that's okay. Where were your major actions as a Corsair pilot?

JR: Well we had a very long flight over to the western coast of Japan from the. Of course our task force was all in the eastern waters and we had a very long flight there to. I had eight airplanes with me, most of our squadron-I guess half of our squadron-and we were to attack these Japanese airplanes on the ground. We really surprised them and we made a mess of that airfield and that mission came out successfully, so I got a decoration or something. I don't know. Just because I was the leader I guess. [Laughs] Anyway. Gee. I ought to know the name of that ship. I'm trying to think of it. I believe that was the Yorktown II [CV-10]. The old Yorktown [CV-5] was sunk at Midway in '42 and this was the Yorktown II that we were on in '45.

JD: Okay. So mainly you were attacking ground targets in Japan? (38:17, Part 1)

JR: Yes, ground targets in Japan proper. This was the war on Japan, getting ready for the invasion of Japan.

JD: Were you involved in Okinawa at all?

JR: Our air group was stationed on Okinawa before we got aboard ship as the stand-by group, and then our turn came to get on the Yorktown. This was of course after we had taken Okinawa but they warned us there were a lot of. "Don't go wandering around in the caves because they're probably still full of Japanese." So it was rather a tenuous time there. At the end of the war-if I can jump to the end.

JD: Sure.

JR: The first landings on Japan were at Atsugi Airfield, if I remember correctly, and we were to fly what we call the air patrol over the airfield as our troop ships were landing at Atsugi and soldiers were disembarking. So the armistice was signed shortly after that in August and we did a big flyover one of the battleships, New Jersey, I guess, or something. (40:04, Part 1)

JD: Missouri.

JR: Missouri, okay. [Laughs] I don't remember battleships too well. [The one] the peace was being signed on. But I was in the big flyover, and it was a pretty big one. [Laughs]

So after that I thought we'd go home and have some liberty. [Laughs] I got two weeks off and I was assigned to another small carrier to go on [Operation] Magic Carpet, which we said, well, you got to go get the troops and bring them back home, you know. [Laughs] So I was assigned as navigator to the USS Matanikau. That's a river near Guadalcanal. We had to go into the China Sea and into. Is it Nanking that's up there, the seaport near Beijing? I think it's Nanking. [We went there to] load some Marines and instead of airplanes we had the hangar deck full of cots, double bunks. So we brought them home. (41:37, Part 1)

Then what happened? Oh, yes. We put the ship out of commission. As the navigator I was the third in command and the captain and the exec got orders so they left me with putting the ship out of commission. We were up there in Seattle, and that was where we had to preserve all the equipment and whatnot.

Shortly after that I got orders to Ottumwa, Iowa. Can you imagine that? Ottumwa, Iowa. What the heck is there? [Laughs] Well, it was a preflight school and I was assigned as a gunnery officer to teach gunnery, which didn't last very long before I got orders to post-graduate school at Annapolis. It was at Annapolis at that time. It later moved to Monterrey. Then I really had to start studying [Laughs] because I'd been out of studying for quite a while, you know, six years or so. It was in '47. So I was determined to study aeronautical engineering and get some kind of degree, maybe a master's or whatever, and I didn't know how long I was going to last but I was kind of surprised even to be selected because I didn't think my grades were that good at the Naval Academy. (43:29, Part 1)

But I was selected and I studied hard, and I had a few As and a few Bs and something like that. If you had fairly good grades-I think it was a B average or something-you could go on for the third year, which was at a university or a regular college, for a further degree. I wanted to go to Cal Tech and they let me in, [Laughs] amazingly enough. Anyway, I studied under a Chinese professor, which is quite a story in itself. Gee! Come on. Remember his name. [Laughs] Anyway, this guy, he was an amazing, brilliant man and he could just fill six blackboards with formula. He'd come in the classroom and fill the blackboards and he said, "Now I've just derived the thrust for a V-2 rocket," and he said, "You guys talk about it and ask questions next time," and he goes out. [Laughs] So we would sit there for the rest of the hour and ask each other, "How did he get that? How did he get this? What does that mean?" and so forth and so on. This guy was arrested for going back to China in 1952. (45:34, Part 1)

JD: Arrested by whom?

JR: That McCarthy business. For being a communist and taking secret material out. I said, this guy didn't. He wrote all that stuff! What do you mean secret material? This is what we said. I mean, we knew the inside. You know, he turned out to be the father of the Chinese rocket system and a famous man in his own way. His life history is in a book called Thread of the Silkworm, which is one of the systems that he developed for-. (46:20, Part 1)

[End tape side one]

JR: I went to Cal Tech and studied under Professor H.S. [Hsue-shen] Tsien, who later went back to China and is the father of the Chinese rocket system that they sell to all the rebel countries today. [Laughs]

So I got by that one too, [Laughs] amazingly enough, and got a degree as an aeronautical engineer. I was in the PhD program but, what do you know, 1950 the Vietnam War breaks out.

JD: Korean War. (1:01, Part 2)

JR: Yes, oh yes, the Korean War. I'm mixed up again. [Laughs] So I get orders to an air group: Stop what you're doing and run. [They asked me,] "Have you ever flown a Corsair?" [I said,] "Yes, I've flown a Corsair." [They said,] "Well, jump in and let's get some carrier landings." I have to practice carrier landings because I've been out of the thing for three years, so I have to practice a little bit. So we have one week before we embark. I left my poor wife in a rented house with all the boxes in the living room filled with our stuff-[Laughs] and she had to put everything away, I guess-and off to sea I went again.

I was assigned-[being] now a technical officer-as the air group maintenance and operations officer, so more or less the assistant air group commander because I was rather senior. I was as senior as most of the squadron commanders so they couldn't put me in a squadron, so that's where I was. (2:39, Part 2)

JD: What was the responsibility?

JR: My responsibility was to check on the maintenance of all of the airplanes and keep account of the numbers that were up and if there were problems in getting enough airplanes to find out what the problems were and see if I could fix it. I did bring some of my technical knowledge to bear.

During the Korean War in the wintertime. And we did hit the wintertime in December and January. It was cold, boy. It was cold. We'd have a little snow on the flight deck and it was down close to zero. Well, we very frequently used napalm bombs, which is a powder you put in a gas tank with a fuse on it, and when you drop that on the ground it explodes and spreads the fire all the way for half a mile or so, quite effective in destroying a lot of stuff, even troops. Well, the gasoline and the napalm powder would not mix at zero degrees, so I put a recommendation in to the captain: Let's heat the gasoline. He blew up. He said, "What are you talking about? Heat the gasoline?" I said, "Well, you can heat the gasoline with a steam pipe, you know, running through the gasoline. It's not going to ignite. It's not going to burn." (4:47, Part 2)

Well, of course, they have to go and [send] a bunch of messages all the way back to Washington-to BuShips-to get the technical go-ahead. They said go ahead and try it. [Laughs] So they tried it and it worked, so I did have an idea. [Laughs] You heated the gasoline to a normal high temperature, like sixty degrees or something like that, with a steam pipe. We had plenty of steam because we had steam catapults at that time so we were using it anyway. So that was a problem solved. [Laughs]

Well, anyway, I came back from that and then I got a squadron command to go back to Korea again, and this was in jets and I'd never flown a jet before but I got somebody to check me out and I flew them and I was elated. Now I'm flying jets, boy, and it was a good idea, and I had a wonderful squadron [unclear 06:06] group of guys. We were out for eight months. I had twenty-two pilots, eighteen airplanes, and I came back with eighteen pilots and twenty-two airplanes still flying, [sic] and that was a record in the Pacific for many, many years. I don't know if it was ever broken or not. Of course I was pretty tickled with that because I could say, "Well, you made it!" (6:39, Part 2) [Laughs]

JD: That's good.

JR: After Korea. Let's see. What happened then?

JD: What was your rank at the end of Korea, by the way?

JR: I was a senior lieutenant commander when I'd taken over the jet squadron. This was '52. A month after that I made commander, so I was a three-stripe commander at that time.

Oh, I was ordered back to Washington to BuAir because of my technical schooling. I was put in fighter design. Now, fighter design is the officer in charge of a project with various civilian professionals under him in the bureau, like one for safety, one for power plants, one for air frames, another one for fuel lines or something like that, another one for communications, and so forth and so on. So you have a team under you to check the designs of airplanes that the Navy wants to buy and sometimes to submit from the contractor any contractor ideas up to the OpNav who decides, well, we'll buy them. (8:26, Part 2)

JD: Could you explain what OpNav is?

JR: The OpNav being the operational part of the Washington thing under the Chief of Naval Operations.

JD: Bureau of Naval Operations.

JR: The Chief of Naval Operations. We call it OpNav, meaning naval operations. He has a staff that decides how many airplanes to buy and what kind of operations we want to do with them. They have to meet certain criteria and those criteria come down to the technical guys who say, well, we need this kind of stuff and this kind of stuff to meet that kind of criteria.

JD: Do you remember any of the names of the planes that you were project chief of?

JR: I was assigned to the Douglas desk, the- (9:42, Part 2)

JD: They made the Phantom, right?

JR: -Douglas Aircraft Company, and the F4D Skyray was a new fighter that Douglas proposed and we had to look it over to see if it would meet our operational requirements. The F3D was another aircraft that was more or less an observation utility aircraft that might be used for the Marine Corps. I think they bought some of those. They also had a rocket plane that broke the speed record or something like that. Of course we weren't interested particularly in that type but we were interested of course in the technical aspects of how they did it and could it be used for future designs. (10:58, Part 2)

Anyway, it was a very interesting tour for me, and my wife hated Washington. [Laughs] We bought a house there and in ten years didn't make any money on it; however, we sold it all right. But I think she stayed there for eight years in between the first Washington job. [Pause] That's right. I went to sea as an air officer. Now, the air officer controls the traffic on the carrier, the flight deck and the launching and the traffic pattern around the ship and things like that, and carries out the captain's orders of what he wants to do with the airplanes-arm them with this or arm them with that. So this was a typical thing because they told me, "Okay, you've got to be an air officer before you get an air group, because we don't want the air group guy fighting with the air officer all the time about what he does with his airplanes," [Laughs] which was happening. So they made you have an experience of being an air officer, of where to park the airplanes and so forth and so on, and how to service them and all that kind of stuff, so you didn't get in fights with the group commander, who wants other things done. [Laughs] That was pretty smart. The next job I got was a group commander. (13:05, Part 2)

JD: Where were you group commander?

JR: My group was assigned to Quonset Point, Rhode Island. I moved my family up there and I was there for two years, and that was in 1956 when I started it. One of the interesting things during the air group tour was that we commissioned a ship in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. We did the flyover. We joined another group of airplanes from Atlantic City and we had a hundred jets, and I was the leader and I had to fly over Brooklyn Navy Yard at fifteen hundred feet with a hundred jets behind me at four hundred knots. You can imagine what the air traffic around New York City was trying to do. Of course the FAA had put out notices and everything to clear the air and whatnot, but some guys of course never get the word, [Laughs] and there was a little Piper Cub or something flying down there that almost got eaten up. We missed him. Sure. [Laughs] But that was quite interesting anyway. (15:03, Part 2)

Another rather interesting thing was that we were just about to deploy on an exercise in the North Atlantic, and of course they picked us no doubt because the group was ready to go. Pres. Eisenhower wanted to come aboard and see an air group, so I had to explain to the president what was happening and what my airplanes were doing and I put on an airshow for him and everything like that. After that was over he invited me to lunch with about ten other guys. Of course I sat back in the corner and kept my mouth shut. [Laughs] Anyway, a highlight. (16:07, Part 2)

Let's see. After the air group job, back to Washington. This time the chief, the admiral of the bureau, says to me, "Welcome aboard," and so forth and so on. "We want you to run the missile department, and let's get the fights stopped between the fighter design and the missile group," because the fighter design guys didn't want [16:45 weights and missiles], and the missiles weren't any good anyway: "We want to shoot bullets," and so forth, the old time stuff, you know, let's dogfight. We'd gotten out of that system now. [Laughs]

So we did our best to try to get the missiles to work better and I think we kind of succeeded. We started what we called the Phoenix Missile, and that's still running today as far as I know. Can you imagine? But I'm sure it's been refined many times. It was put on the F14, and of course the F14s have been in service for twenty years, but that was a missile to protect the fleet. (17:41, Part 2)

JD: What was the Phoenix Missile designed to do?

JR: The Phoenix Missile was designed to protect the fleet, to shoot an attacker down at a hundred miles away after identification, which was the hard part of course, to find out who it was that was fooling around out there. But if you expected a group of strikes coming in and that had been reported to you and whatnot, and you did query them with an electronic pulse or something to get an identification-an IFF identification which means identify friend or foe-and you didn't get an answer, then you could shoot, and this missile was supposed to go a hundred miles. I never knew how it worked out. I wasn't in operations again to ever use one. But we did start that and it was apparently successful.

Where did I go after that? Oh! Back to Monterrey as a school teacher, as head of the aeronautical engineering section of the graduate school. (19:10, Part 2)

JD: That would make this 1958 or '59?

JR: This would be 1960.

JD: That's an improvement in the weather over Washington.

JR: Quite a bit. [Laughs] And it was by the seashore and she loved it. [Laughs] Oh, dear. We had a nice time in Monterrey. That was a nice relaxing job. I had an old professor that used to lecture me all the time about what they should study, how they should study, and, "Never make up your mind what you want to do before you go to college or while you're in college. Just be generalistic," he says. And he said, "You have to start pinpointing what you want to do in graduate school. That's where you work." I guess so. I don't know. Not always, huh? [Laughs] But anyway, he was quite an influence on me, I think. I can't remember his name. Oh, well. (20:36, Part 2)

After a year there I went back to sea-after two years there, I guess. It was two years. I went back to sea in '62-which turned out to be my last [20:56 sea] duty-as an operations officer of a task force. In that job, the operations officer runs the task force, runs the whole routine. First he writes an op order. This tells him what the operation is going to do, what the purpose of it is, how they're going to do it; what kind of formations to use, what kind of ammunition to use, and all that kind of stuff is in the op order, and what the targets are, I suppose. Yes, of course. But there are changes, of course, that come out after the op order is in possession of everybody and those have got to be made also. Now, of course the operations officer writes the op order and he has a staff of people to do it, I mean about six or eight other officers on the staff, and we present it to the admiral and he signs it if he likes it. If he wants to change it, we change it. Then we go out and we operate according to that op order and every day there might be a change in the schedule and a change in the ammunition loading and a change in the number of airplanes going to specific targets and things like that, or what formations to take, or what courses to take. Pretty big job. I'm not sure that I did well on that because I was probably not ready for it. [Laughs] (22:49, Part 2)

Anyway, it lasted a year, and of course most of the steps to making admiral-.

JD: Where was the task force operating?

JR: Off the [south] China coast. We were kind of interested in China at that time, I guess, and all the goings-on in 1960.

JD: [unclear 23:29]

JR: And also Vietnam. We did an operation over Vietnam with the P2s, photographic planes. These are the photographic land-based planes.

JD: Orions? (24:01, Part 2)

JR: Orions that came from a land base, but we would direct them just as they were off the Vietnam coast-we were close to that coast at that time-in sections to photograph. They photographed the whole Vietnam, you know, to find out roads. I guess everybody knew that the Vietnam War was brewing or something in about '62. I don't know. Anyway, we were getting ready for it with maps. We were making maps out of the photographs. So that was a big operation we had to take care of.

We normally went back into Subic Bay for refueling and relaxation. We did other kinds of missions, like atomic attacks with the AD aircraft, the only prop aircraft we had left at that time. Those poor guys had to fly twelve and fourteen hours in a single seat, all strapped in, and that was a heck of a job. (25:32, Part 2)

Anyway, that was about a year's worth of duty and I came back to. My wife [and family] stayed at Monterrey at that time. After that I got ordered back to the Naval Academy, which was maybe a disappointment to me at the time because I know that I'm not going to be immediately promoted to admiral because the routine was, after the ops job, you got a deep draft, which was an oiler or a tanker or something to acquaint you with ship handling before you got a carrier, and then you made admiral. That was the steps that they were running then. But that would mean going to sea for six years or so. My wife was delighted that I didn't get that. [Laughs]

Anyway, I got ordered to the Naval Academy. After I got there I said, boy; this is great. I was appointed as head of the department of engineering.

JD: This would have been '61? (27:11, Part 2)

JR: '62, and of course we had Roger Staubach on the football team and we were number two in the country or something like that. We had a great time going to the football games. [Laughs] But also, in the serious work, I got there and this was the first time an aviator had been the head of the engineering department because they'd had engineering duty officers only in the engineering department, and when you walked into the engineering department it's a bunch of old boilers sitting there, and old turbines, and all this junk sitting in the display department. [Laughs] I said, "Holy smoke! Let's get rid of that junk." (28:01, Part 2)

But the opportunity came and we decided. Somebody decided. I hope it was the admiral or something. It must have been because it worked. We had to upgrade the whole curricula. Nobody wants to study steam anymore. We know all about steam. What about aeronautics? What about space and stuff like that? What about intricate navigations in the sky, you know, and stuff like that? Well, we decided to rework the whole curricula and have something for the excellent students that they could get extra credit for and maybe even get enough for a master's degree, and of course we had to go through accreditation and everything else. (29:13, Part 2)

I had a very good experience going through the accreditation board. The admiral, of course, had lunch for all the accreditation board that came down to look us over, and all the heads of departments were there. What do you know? I recognized a guy over there. I'm trying to think of his name. Professor Dubuque, or something like that, from Baltimore, a professor in my high school. I went up to him and I said, "I'm Vic Rowney. I'm a Poly boy." He said, "I would have known it!" [Laughs] I invited him to lunch over at the house and it was a great experience for me to have my old high school guy come over and see that, well, maybe I did do a good job. [Laughs] Oh, boy. (30:33, Part 2)

Anyway, we did work very hard on the curricula and I put in an aeronautical program and I hired an aeronautical professor. I went back for my sixtieth two years ago and he was still there, thirty years later, so I figured that was a pretty good job. I had fun doing it too.

All right, so after the Naval Academy I got. Let's see. Yes, I got an air station-a small air station, Point Mugu in California-as commander of the air station. Well, of course that was a small job on the staff of the Pacific Missile Range who was an admiral. He's the admiral in charge of the Pacific Missile Range that's stationed at Point Mugu. It's a very technical system now because Vandenberg shoots the missiles and the Navy is in control of the range and all the telemetry that goes into controlling the missile and targeting the missile and everything else, which I didn't have anything to do with. I was just running the air station. It was kind of a support activity for them. But it was interesting. (32:14, Part 2)

I had a nice house-I had a beach house [Laughs]-and when we had to put in a. On the Fourth of July or something I had to put on a brunch for the citizens out there, out in town, but I had a lot of help because I had all the stewards come in and help put on the breakfast. We did have a nice house the Navy provided, and we did have an automobile that the Navy provided, and we did have a steward that the Navy provided, so it was high life, you know? [Laughs] But I suppose the deprivations of going to sea are rewarded by coming home and having shore duty. (33:11, Part 2)

After that I got another air station, which was Moffett Field, California at Sunnyvale and Mountain View, the heart of Silicon Valley. I bought a little house worth forty thousand dollars in 1968. I retired there. I retired after that. They wanted me back in Washington for a pretty high-powered job and I said. She wouldn't go. She said, "I'm not going to Washington." So I gave up and retired, see. [Laughs] But I will say I missed making admiral by not going to Washington, and I could have done it because it was an admiral's job. But anyway, that's the way it goes.

JD: When was that-1968? (34:19, Part 2)

JR: '68 I retired, and she died in '99, and I sold that house. Forty thousand dollars, I paid for it. I sold it for seven hundred and fifty, no taxes, no nothing. [Laughs] That's a little bit of inflation, you know? Not only inflation but everybody wanted to buy a house in Silicon Valley at that time. But I would say that's a little bit of inflation because we have to still pay for going to the moon. My old professor at Cal Tech says, "We have the technology to go to the moon," in 1950, "But we'll never have enough money to do it." He doesn't know anything about the U.S. government, you know. [Laughs] Oh, dear. End of story.

JD: Well, I thank you very much. I appreciate your time. Thank you. (35:28, Part 2)

[End tape side two]

James Victor Rowney oral history interview, February 7, 2003
Oral history interview of Jame Victor Rowney, a U.S. Navy officer and engineer. A member of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1941, he served aboard the USS ENTERPRISE and witnessed the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He also attended flight school (1942-1943) and served as a naval aviator 1944-1945 and served in the Korean War as a naval aviator in both Corsairs and jets. After his service overseas, he later served as head of the Department of Engineering at the Naval Academy (1962-1963). Rowney discusses his service and career as a member of the U.S. Navy. Length of interview: 1.75 hours. Interviewer: Jonathan Dembo.
February 07, 2003
Original Format
oral histories
10cm x 6cm
Local Identifier
Location of Original
East Carolina Manuscript Collection
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