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Keeping freedom in the family
Bowens links to the Revolutionary War continue to protect liberty today
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John Bowen sitting outside a foxhole at Anzio Beach during World War II. Generations after his ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War, Bowen also found himself fighting for freedom.
The Overmountain Victory Trail Association
What: A nonprofit organization aiming to preserve and protect the preservation of the 253-mile trail from Abingdon, Va., to Kings Mountain in South Carolina
More info: Membership is open to anyone; call president Alan Bowen at 770-382-2863 or e-mail.

Gainesville resident John M. Bowen Jr., 87, has a personal tie to Independence Day.

John and his wife, Emily, can trace their family history back to ancestors who served in battles during the Revolutionary War. And the price paid by soldiers of that time, more than 200 years ago, is worth its weight in the freedoms we hold today.

“Every war has a different story to tell, different circumstances and problems, different tales of horror in different settings,” said John Bowen, “My feelings about war turn to the veterans and their families who bear the pain of those left behind.

“Freedom is not cheap, and it must be defended from time to time.”

Luckily, family stories dating back generations passed from one to the next, and today John and Emily can continue to share them with future generations. Their stories also are documented in books such as “The Patriots at Kings Mountain” by Bobby Gilmer Moss.

Emily Bowen’s relatives, the Whelchel family, lived in South Carolina during the Revolutionary War years. Her ancestor, John Whelchel, fought in at least six Revolutionary War battles, including the Battle of Kings Mountain (1780, South Carolina) and Blackstock’s Plantation (1780, South Carolina).

Even hundreds of years later, the battlefield drama still translates.

“The enemy was practically at their door steps,” Emily said of the battles in the South. “They had to fight to protect their way of life, their land, their families.”

At the Battle of the Cowpens, (January 1781, South Carolina), John Whelchel sustained numerous cuts to his head and several stabs to his body. His father, Dr. Francis Whelchel Sr., found him and treated him by melting down silver coins and making a plate for his wounded skull. Francis served as a surgeon and was in the battles at Cowpens and Kings Mountain.

John Whelchel recovered well enough to fight in the Battle of Eutaw Springs (September 1781, South Carolina). His brothers Davis, William and Francis Jr. also fought at Cowpens and Kings Mountain, with Davis being a prisoner of British leader Patrick Ferguson before the Battle of Kings Mountain.

After the war, John Whelchel settled down north of Gainesville. He lived to be around 80 and is buried in New Bridge Cemetery, Hall County.

John Bowen’s family was from Virginia.

“My ancestor, Robert Bowen, his brothers and their mother, Lily McLlhany Bowen, were participants in the Battle of Point Pleasant, during Lord Dunmore’s War in 1774 (Kanawha, W.Va.). Most of them were compensated as scouts,” he said. “This war was fought against the Indians, prior to the battles of Lexington and Concord, in 1775.”

One of the men, Moses Bowen, died on the trip back home from Point Pleasant. Some said it was from wounds and others, from disease.

“Robert Bowen and his brothers fought at the Battle of Kings Mountain, which was the turning point for the American Revolution in the South” John said. “When one of the brothers, Capt. William Bowen, was ill, another brother, Reece Bowen took over his command and was killed during the battle. The grave of Reece Bowen has never been found.”

Since 2001, the Bowens join other families to share a physical link to their ancestors — they participate in the annual reenactment march to the battle of Kings Mountain. Sponsored by the nonprofit Overmountain Victory Trail Association, the event takes participants along the same route the soldiers took on their way to the battle — 253 miles in two weeks.

The Overmountain Victory Trail Association has been hiking the route from Abingdon, Va., to Kings Mountain in South Carolina since 1975.

“My father called me on the phone and said that he planned ... to retrace the route of our ancestors on the campaign to the battle of Kings Mountain,” said Alan Bowen, one of John Bowen’s children. “At the time, my father was 79 years old. I asked him if hiking that far in two weeks would not be too much for him.”

But when Bowen put the march into perspective — namely, recalling his own wartime experiences — a two-week hike was nothing.
“During WWII, I was in North Africa, walked up most of Italy and into France, Germany, and Austria and people were trying to kill me,” he said. “This little hike won’t be a problem.”

Alan Bowen told his dad, “Maybe I had better go along.”

Today, he serves as the president of the Overmountain Victory Trail Association, which now tells the story of the historic march and battle to more than 11,000 visitors each year.

Hundreds of years after his own ancestors marched the trail, John Bowen was recognized for his own military service as he walked the same path his ancestors took.

“I met a group of Italian men during the march and told them that I served in Italy during WWII, in the Army — Third Signal Company of the Third Infantry Division,” John Bowen said. “They immediately said that they were glad to meet one of the ‘liberators.’ We were heroes to them then, and we are now.”

John Bowen found out first hand about the cost of freedom paid by his ancestors when he joined the Army as a young soldier during WWII. He fought in five battles during World War II in Italy, France, Germany and Austria between 1943 and 1945.

“There is a definite connection between the Revolutionary War and the other wars fought by Americans in every century,” he said. “Our most important bond is the common tie of freedom.”

Generations after his ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War, John Bowen found himself marching through unfamiliar territory to fight for freedom. He was shipped to North Africa and then to Italy, where he joined thousands of other soldiers ready to fight on the front lines north of Naples.

“On my 21st birthday, I woke up in a foxhole under 1 foot of snow. We ate K-rations and drank chlorinated water out of a canvas bag. Our guns were Carbine rifles.”

John Bowen and about 20 other men in his platoon set up their communications command about a mile from the fighting at the front. “We sat on cane-bottom chairs in a panel truck and used typewriters. We used a generator for electricity and had to use ‘blackout’ shades so the enemy would not see us. Sometimes the shelling would be pretty terrific and would shake our truck.”

Bowen remembers taking messages for four hours “on” and four hours “off” round the clock, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for more than two years.

His division was later sent again to Naples to connect with American troops at the Rhine River, marching all the way through Nuremberg and south toward Munich.  At this point, the Germans were still relentless in battle.  

“We marched into an area that resembled a stockade with a huge chimney belching pungent smoke,” he said. “We had heard nothing of the concentration camps.”

Since they received messages not to enter the place, his division marched further down the road, seeing pitiful, gaunt human beings, barely alive, who were crying and cheering for them. “We were only allowed to throw what little items we had for them (food/candy bars/cigarettes), as our orders were not to stop for any reason.”

Later on, he found out that place was the Dachau concentration camp.

John Bowen’s division went on to take Munich, Germany, and Salzburg, Austria,  where they were one of the first to capture Hitler’s mountaintop retreat.  

The fight for freedom continues with the younger generations.

The Bowens have a grandson who is a member of the Georgia National Guard and a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.

And despite the roots the family traces all the way to the founding of the country, Emily Bowen said it never gets any easier to see loved ones go off to war.

“When you wave goodbye to your loved ones, going across the seas to fight for America and our freedom, you feel the impact so directly,” she said. “You watch and listen to every media report, and you pray and never rest.”

But the turmoil of war — and the legacy it protects — is woven into the fabric of our country.

“There are so many groups of men and women who have paid the ultimate price of freedom during our nation’s history,” Alan Bowen said. “That is why it is the story of the American spirit.”

Lynda Holmes is a member of the Col. William Candler Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Her ancestor, Samuel Kelso fought at Cowpens and Kings Mountain. She is married to Dale Bowen Holmes and interviewed members of his family for this story.

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