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Walter Lowe: Scott County’s WWII hero who never gained the recognition he deserved

“He’s a tall man in his early 60s in a dark gray suit. He stands in the church house as an entire community turns out to honor him for his heroic actions in a world war that a good 50% of those present know little or nothing about.” 

That’s how a 1984 Independent Herald article began about Walter Lowe, Scott County’s unsung hero of World War II. 

Written by Paul Roy, the article detailed how Lowe was being honored in the West Robbins community he called home, where Memorial Day was being celebrated as “Walter Lowe Day.” 

Congressman Jim Cooper and State Senator Annabelle Clement O’Brien were supposed to be there that day. And, while they did show up, they were quite late. By the time they arrived, most of those who filled the church to honor Lowe had dispersed, making their way back to their homes.

“He remains standing with the 80 or more other people crowded in the small church, waiting for the speech-making and presentation of the flag from a U.S. Congressman,” Roy wrote. “Finally, after several minutes, fellow Robbins-area resident and Scott County Board of Education member J.D. Chambers takes the podium to tell the crowd to disperse — that it’s all over. He asked those who could to remain to see if Congressman Jim Cooper and State Senator Annabelle Clement O’Brien would show up, but most of the people stood in line to shake the hand of Walter Lowe and then left.”

A generation earlier, when Fentress County resident Sgt. Alvin C. York returned from World War I, America celebrated him — and continued celebrating him throughout his life and after. 

No one would dare question the heroic deeds of York, one of the bravest soldiers the United States sent into battle in World War I. But Sgt. Walter Lowe’s actions were every bit as heroic — and very similar — yet somehow escaped fanfare. When he returned from World War II, America largely forgot him.

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“It was unfortunate that things turned out the way they did for ‘Walter Lowe Day’ in West Robbins, but the man being honored would probably be among the first to tell you that it’s typical,” Roy wrote in 1984. “It’s hard to disappoint Walter Lowe. He’s grown to expect it. His family, his friends and a few old Army buddies who are still around have exhausted every means to get the man the recognition and national respect he deserves for his service to his country. But, for the most part, people apparently want to forget about the big war and the men who contributed so much to winning it.”

So what exactly did Walter Lowe do that was so heroic? A 1976 article in the Independent Herald, entitled “Portrait of an unsung hero,” detailed it. This is that article in its entirety: 

Portrait of an unsung hero

Walter Lowe doesn’t look like the motion picture version of a war hero as he sits on an old wooden bench on the front porch of his home in one of the most rural areas of East Tennessee.

But at 55, Lowe is Scott County’s — and probably Tennessee’s — most decorated veteran of World War II, having received the Distinguished Service Cross and British Military Medal while fighting with General Patton’s Third Army in France and Germany.

Unlike his World War I counterpart, Sgt. Alvin York from nearby Pall Mall, Lowe came home from the European theatre before all the pomp and pageantry associated with the victory celebration. In fact, the only parade Lowe ever participated in came some 30 years later as he rode in a Jeep with other veterans in an Oneida parade.

Sgt. Lowe came home from the war early — with trench feet, a shrapnel wound to the knee and a long-awaited reunion with friends and realties in Smoky Junction, a tiny community nestled high in the Cumberland Mountains of Scott County.

But he was a hero, nevertheless, even though it took the U.S. Government 21 years to send him all of the medals he earned overseas. 

Sgt. Lowe hasn’t talked much about his war experiences and few people know how he earned his DSC, the second-highest honor the United States can bestow upon one of its soldiers. And fewer still know how he earned one of Great Britain’s highest decorations.

But recently, through the urging of his friend, J.D. Chambers, Lowe began relating some of his war time experiences, all of which took place during 145 consecutive days on the front lines.

“I’ve kept it hid for 30 years … most of it, anyway,” said Lowe. “They picked me for every rough detail there was. The city boys just didn’t have enough nerve to go on.”

Lowe was drafted into the Army as a 6-2, 140-pound mountain boy on October 23, 1942. He was sent to Ft. McClellan, Alabama, and after another year and a half of combat conditioning, Lowe was assigned to the ill-fated Company G of the 95th Infantry Division, 378th Infantry Regiment, which set sail for Europe on August 6, 1944.

Most of his company never came home. Only two fo the 42 in Lowe’s platoon made it back to the states.

One of his first daring stunts came in early November, 1944, as he crawled on a 40-ton tank to man a 50-caliber machine gun as it rolled into a German-occupied town about the size of Oneida.

From his vantage point, Lowe “mowed down” a column of German soldiers, while other enemy soldiers fled the town. Forty-five minutes later, he was joined by the rest of his outfit.

A few days later, on November 19, 1944, Lowe pulled off one of the most remarkable feats of the war — and his fearlessness on this day would later be cited when he was awarded the DSC.

“Smoky Lowe,” as he came to be known, was involved in the assault on Ft. Julien, France, when his platoon was pinned down by machine gun fire from a bunker from about 75 yards to his right.

“I had burned my BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) up shooting at the pill boxes,” said Lowe. “So I picked up my buddy’s M-1 rifle.”

The bunker consisted of two pill boxes and Lowe grabbed the M-1 and ran toward the nearest one. “I pulled out a hand grenade and threw it in. Sixteen Germans came out and I ordered them ‘Handy-Ho,’” a GI term indicating that the Germans should put their hands on their heads.

A little nudge with the M-1 and the German soldiers moved toward the second bunker. Soon, Lowe had 32 German prisoners.

Since he had temporarily separated from his own company, Lowe marched the soldiers to F Company, where he turned them over to an awe-stricken young lieutenant. “I also asked where I could get a new rifle, since the one I had didn’t work,” Lowe said. “The lieutenant gave me a brand new one.”

It wasn’t long after this incident that Lowe and six of his platoon members were out on patrol and got lost. “We split up the next morning and I ran into a bunch of British soldiers. I couldn’t understand half of what they said, but I stayed with them for about a week.”

A day or two after joining the British forces, Lowe once again found himself hemmed in by German soldiers. The only possible means of escape was to knock out a two-story building which blocked their advance. Lowe volunteered for the mission.

“I took a pole charge, loaded with TNT, and told them to keep shooting over my head. I crawled up the building, leaned the pole charge up against it, lit the fuse and hit the dirt,” he said.

When the smoke cleared, there was a gaping hole in the side of the building and Lowe gunned down the lone survivor of the blast.

“It turned out that I had to pay for my way back to the outfit,” he said. “They’d been promising to take me back but didn’t until I blew the building up.”

The long, weary nights on the front line were taking their toll, but aside from developing trench feet and needing a shave and a bath, Lowe continued fighting.

Another patrol ended abruptly one night when Lowe and another soldier exchanged gunfire with an entire column of advancing Germans.

Both escaped unscathed, however, and rushed back to camp where they informed a “West Point tank commander” of the incident.

“He said we were just wasting ammunition, that he wanted us to bring back proof,” said Lowe.

Taking the new officer at his word, Lowe and his buddy went right back out, laid in a ditch on each side of the road and waited.

Sure enough, the Germans were on the move again. When the column had come to within 15 to 25 feet of him, Lowe said he rose up out of the ditch with his BAR and fired 20 rounds, killing 10 Germans.

Then, he picked up the nearest dead soldier, slung his limp form over his shoulder, and marched back into camp where he threw the body down in front of the commander’s tent. “I reckon that was proof enough for him,” said Lowe.

Toward the end of the 145 days on the front line, Sgt. Lowe and his lieutenant, Ralph Wilson, of Elkins, West Virginia, were the only two members of his platoon alive. Forty others had died.

Lowe had been wounded by shrapnel in his left knee and he and Lt. Wilson were holed up in German territory as they waited for supplies and reinforcements.

“We stayed there for three days,” Lowe recalls, “splitting cans of C-rations and cigarettes.”

When reinforcements finally arrived, Gen. George Patton was among them.

“Patton came into a little patch of woods to talk to the 95th Division, or what was left of it,” said Lowe. “He said that the Third Army could throw its pick mattocks away, that we didn’t live in foxholes anymore.

“He asked me what I thought about the battle and I said I didn’t think much of it — I’d like to get it overweigh and get out. He said that’s what he thought, too,” Lowe said.

Later, he asked someone who the man with the pearl-handled pistol was. “And they told me it was Gen. Patton, but I didn’t think much of that, either,” Lowe said with a grin.

Lowe arrived home on October 4, 1945 without a ribbon to his name, but within a year — and for some time to come — the honors followed him.

Mrs. Lowe (Eva) explains that her husband might have received more publicity had he been able to receive his medals in person, but as she says, “We were just too poor and couldn’t take off to Washington and such places.”

So most of Lowe’s citations and decorations came via the U.S. Mail, the last ones coming in 1967.

In addition to the DSC and the British Military Medal, Lowe was also awarded a Purple Heart, Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster, a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, a World War II Victory Medal, and a good conduct medal. There were others that were “lost or forgotten,” according to Mrs. Lowe.

Unlike the Medal of Honor winner, Sgt. York, who lived about 25 miles from here in neighboring Fentress County, Lowe hasn’t gained the fame or fortune connected with his feats as a soldier.

“If somebody had followed me around with a camera they’ve had one of those movies that only adults can go see,” Lowe said.

Instead of fame and fortune, Lowe and his wife reside in a tiny community that few people know exists. The Lowes live off a $186 monthly check which comes to Lowe as a result of a service-connected disability.

No, Lowe doesn’t look like the motion picture version of a war hero …

Footnote: Walter Lowe died on April 10, 1992 at the age of 70, without ever receiving additional recognition for his service. He is buried at Black Creek Crossroads Cemetery.

This story is the March 2021 installment of Forgotten Times, presented by United Cumberland Bank on the fourth week of each month as part of the Independent Herald’s Back Page Features series. A print version of this article can be found on Page B4 of the March 25, 2021 edition of the Independent Herald.
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