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 off Woodland Avenue 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.
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 air strikes 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.
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 United States for two months.
Steve’s father, Walter Kwiecinski, also had been a prisoner of war after Corregidor fell. He survived three years of brutal treatment to tell stories of Corregidor to his family. He returned in 1980 to see what he still remembered as a tropical paradise despite his ordeal. He was delighted to see history preserved on the island. He died in 1988.
Steve visited Corregidor 10 years ago and says he immediately understood his father’s attachment to the place. By 2008, the retired computer programmer and his wife received permission to live on the island as caretakers of its history. They are experts on events in the war in the region and give tours.
They learned of the Cowan dog tag from a guide on the island, Armando Hildawa, who said he had received the tag as a thank you from another man. Artifacts from the war often surface 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.
The Kwiecinskis were shocked to find that Cowan was living in Steve’s hometown. They vowed to see her while visiting the Iron Range.
Constance Cowan moved to Duluth in 1952 and taught at grade schools across the city, her last not far from her apartment, Chester Park Elementary. She was attending the University of Minnesota when her brother died.
But news of his death didn’t come in a sudden letter or a visit from the military. It was an agonizing nine months before the Cowan family knew exactly what had happened to Jimmy. They knew he was imprisoned and that something might have happened to him on that day in December 1944. Windom couldn’t mourn their hometown boy until the government made his death official in late summer 1945.
“First you hear Corregidor goes down,” Cowan said. “Then you hear he’s missing. It was all so gradual.”
She was grateful to know that people still cared about what happened to her brother.
“When I found out you were in Duluth, I couldn’t believe it,” Steve Kwiecinski told Cowan. He told Cowan that his father and her brother may have crossed paths, there are too many similarities in the war experiences.
Cowan said her brother needed to join the fight. The military was a way to “stabilize” his life, she said. It was something to take him away from hard work and his motherless childhood. He had dropped out of high school.
The Cowans’ father had served in World War I and Constance said her dad talked about the experience all the time.
“I remember one Christmas Eve sitting next to him and he relived World War I,” Cowan said.
“It doesn’t really register,” Cowan said of the letter with the dog tag inside. “It takes time. Here’s a dog tag he actually touched. I never dreamed something like this could happen.”