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WWII dog tag returned to Minnesota soldier's sister

Constance Cowan, 87,of Duluth, Minn., received a dog tag that had belonged to her brother, James, who died in the Philippines during World War II. The dog tag was found by a tour guide on the island of Corregidor, where James served during World War II. James died as a POW, by "friendly fire," in the Oryoku Maru incident that occurred on Dec. 15, 1944. The Oryoku Maru was an unmarked Japanese prisoner of war transport that was sunk by the American Navy. (Clint Austin/Duluth News Tribune)

DULUTH, Minn. – What Constance Cowan remembers about her brother, Jimmy, is that he had a challenged upbringing. She was 4 and he was 9 when their mother died in childbirth. Connie went to live with relatives while Jimmy stayed with his dad on a farm near Windom, in southern Minnesota. It was the Great Depression.

“There was never five minutes when we were all together as a family,” Connie said Friday from her apartment in Duluth. “We were together at times, but not all at once.

“Jimmy’s life was hard,” she said.

He eventually went to work on a farm in Iowa. In January 1941, at age 21, Jimmy enlisted in the Army. His life would only get harder.

Cowan was telling the story of her brother to Steve and Marcia Kwiecinski. Through a series of incredible twists and turns, the Kwiecinskis were led to Cowan after a dog tag belonging to Jimmy surfaced half a world away.

Fall of Corregidor

James Cowan was stationed in the Philippines, on an island that protected the bay that leads to Manila. Corregidor was built to ward off ships, but airstrikes and heavy artillery from the advancing Japanese eventually led to the Allies surrendering the island, the last stronghold as Japan took over the Philippines. Jimmy became a prisoner of war in May 1942.

Hometown newspaper accounts said Cowan was very ill while imprisoned. The Japanese were notorious for their poor treatment of POWs in the region. Nowhere were the treatment and conditions worse than on the “hell ships,” the boats used to transport prisoners to camps and slave labor.

In December 1944, Cowan was boarded on the Oryoku Maru ship. Like many of the Japanese POW ships, it was unmarked. Prisoners were put in the holds and Japanese military and civilians on the upper decks. American air forces attacked the ship, and 200 POWs were killed. Cowan was reported as lost at sea.

Connecting to home

Steve and Marcia Kwiecinski are the only Americans living today on Corregidor, which now is the equivalent of a national park dedicated to the memory of the terrible fighting and loss of life there 70 years ago. The American military cemetery in Manila holds more than 17,000 soldiers and 36,000 names.

Jimmy Cowan’s name is inscribed there. His body was never found.

His story rang familiar to Steve Kwiecinski, who grew up in Duluth. His mother lives in Virginia and each year he and his wife come back to the U.S. for two months.

The Kwiecinskis are experts on events in the war in the region and give tours. They learned of the Cowan dog tag from Armando Hildawam a guide on the island, who said he had received the tag as a thank you from another man. Artifacts from the war often surface from the earth after the rainy season, the couple said, though dog tags are a rare find these days.

Hildawa told the Kwiecinskis the story of handing the tag over to American visitor Brandon Ainsworth, who vowed to find Cowan or his relatives to return the tag.

It didn’t take Ainsworth long. Constance Cowan, in her late 80s and the only person alive in her immediate family, received her brother’s tag in the mail last month along with a letter of appreciation from Ainsworth. He found her by scouring family records.

“It doesn’t really register,” Constance Cowan said. “It takes time. Here's a dog tag he actually touched. I never dreamed something like this could happen.”

Mike Creger | Forum News Service

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