Days after he turned 100 years old, dozens of people showed up at a birthday party for Roswell resident Lowell Hughes.
One by one, a steady stream of relatives, friends and other well-wishers approached the wheelchair-bound World War II veteran to shake hands and engage in brief conversation. Despite the significance of this year’s birthday, the newly crowned centenarian said he still had not completely absorbed the reality of being 100.
“I don’t feel 100. I just woke up one morning and I was 100,” he explained while surrounded by loved ones. Nonetheless, Hughes said he is “thankful the good Lord” has allowed him to live so long.
The writing on Hughes’ birthday cake said that he has lived from horse and buggy to moon landing. However, he has lived far beyond that. Though raised in a farmhouse that lacked indoor plumbing, he has lived to see the rise of the smartphone.
Hughes’ life though is remarkable not only for its length, but for what he has done in that time, including helping save the world.
For Hughes, life began Oct. 12, 1918 in Oklahoma, as the youngest of four children. He spent his earliest years on the family’s 136-acre farm in Poteau, Oklahoma. As a child he worked on the farm and during his elementary school years, rode a horse to a two-room schoolhouse to attend classes.
Part of Hughes’ childhood also coincided with the Great Depression. Like many other people, the Hughes family faced financial hardship, forced at one point to sell their car. However, he said living on the farm ensured he and his family had a steady supply of food.
In 1938, when he was 18 years old, Hughes left the farm and never returned to it. With $6 in his pocket, he arrived in Roswell, initially to visit his two sisters and their respective families. He decided to stay in Roswell, working for his brother-in-law, who showed him how to rewind generators on cars.
Hughes’ life would soon take another turn when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in late 1940. He was sworn into the U.S. Army in January 1941 and was placed into the 120th Combat Engineers 45th Infantry Division. He spent the next two years stationed at several military bases for training.
As a member of the Combat Engineers, Hughes assisted in removing land mines, and building bypasses and bridges for the infantry who engaged in combat.
Hughes remembers one day, Dec. 7, 1941, a Sunday while stationed in Texas, when he heard on the radio Japanese forces had bombed Pearl Harbor. For the rest of the day, the news dominated the discussion, he said. It also marked a turning point for U.S. involvement in the overseas conflict.
“That cinched it. That put us in the war, and we declared war on Japan, and it wasn’t a few days later that we declared war on Germany,” Hughes said.
A little more than a year would go by before Hughes and his division left the U.S. though. In 1943, Hughes and other members of his division made the perilous 28-day voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in a convoy of more than 100 ships. As they crossed the ocean they were forced to zig-zag throughout the journey to avoid being struck by German submarines.
“We would go five minutes one way and five another,” he explained.
In all, Hughes would eventually spend more than 511 consecutive days in combat. During that time in Europe, Hughes would play a part in the liberations of Sicily, Italy, France and Germany, and was a part of four amphibious landings. He recalls how residents in towns and villages would enthusiastically greet American forces.
One episode of the war that remains seared in Hughes’ memory happened April 29, 1945 in the small town of Dachau. There Hughes saw first-hand the horrors of the war, when he and his infantry discovered one of the most notorious concentration camps.
He said that when they arrived, U.S. forces came upon a horrifying sight: box cars filled with the bodies of prisoners. Many had been worked to death during their time held in the camp or died as a result of disease or malnourishment.
The prisoners who had survived, Hughes said, were little more than “skin and bones.”
“Just imagine, being arrested and the next day they were then in those camps and they had nothing,” Hughes said.
U.S. Forces were stunned and outraged by the conditions of the camps prisoners were kept in. Many Germans fled, but Hughes said the guards who had not were either shot or taken prisoner.
Hughes said that at one point he saw a small group of prisoners walking down the street wearing shoes that were falling apart. He then forced German soldiers to give their boots to the prisoners. The response from the concentration camp survivors to the forced exchange was much different than that of the former German guards.
“They (the prisoners) were so tickled, but those Germans did not like it at all,” he said.
The memories of that day, Hughes said, he has never been able to forget.
“There ain’t no way you can forget something like that,” he said.
Hughes would be discharged from the military in July of 1945, and call Roswell home for most of the time since. He would go on to marry and outlive what he often says are “two of the best wives any man could be allowed to have.” He also started his own business, Hughes Electric, in 1963.
After he retired in 1988, Hughes and his second wife Christina spent many years going on cruises or traveling around the nation and the world.
Despite the passage of time, Hughes’ military service and what he witnessed in World War II remain a core part of his identity. He is often seen wearing a cap emblazoned with the words “World War II Veteran” and as recently as last year drove his Ford Mustang in the annual Veterans Day Parade.
“My military service probably changed me completely,” Hughes explained. “I learned how to be an adult and take care of myself.” He added that he thinks in the long run, that service contributed to his success in later life.
In recent years, he has spoken to local middle and high school classes about what he witnessed at Dachau. He said that he wants the younger generation to understand the importance of freedom.
World War II offered the world a stark look at what it is like to live under the alternative, he said.
Last year, Hughes, who never completed high school, was awarded an honorary high school diploma from Roswell High School. Hughes had never attained more than a 10th grade education. A high school diploma is something he never thought he would be able to obtain. He characterized it as one of the most important achievements of his life.
“And I thought that was something else,” he said.
Hughes though is not immune to the effects of aging. Earlier this year, he broke one of his legs and as a result is unable to drive, and has trouble getting around. Nonetheless, he is taking things in stride.
“I don’t complain about this because I have so many good things. See, I can see, I can hear, still got my mind. I don’t think about a little thing like not walking, don’t bother me so much because I have so many good things that I know that a lot of people don’t have,” he said.
Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.