While many of our ancestors arrived in this nation by ship – the only practical means of mass transit at the time, the subject of this blog chose a different but no less dangerous path to freedom. In his case, timing made the difference between life and death.
Kenneth H. Rowe (No Kum-Sok) was born in Sinhung, Korea on January 10, 1932. When Rowe was twelve years old, Korea was a part of the Japanese Empire and both Japanese culture and companies dominated the peninsula. Though Korean traditions and culture were officially shunned, Rowe’s father worked for a Japanese corporation and made a relatively good living, providing Ken with both material and social advantages. By his teen years, Ken could speak both Korean and Japanese fluently. In 1944 the Japanese military began sending its pilots on suicide missions against the American navy in the Pacific and requested Korean volunteers. Although Rowe was only twelve, he asked his father if he could volunteer to serve as a kamikaze pilot. The father was able to discourage Rowe, and conveyed an attitude that the United States would ultimately win the war. This aroused a curiosity in Ken about the United States and its people.
While Rowe began to express pro-American sentiments to his classmates, he had to be careful about them since the Soviets occupied Korea north of the 38th parallel after World War II and installed a Communist regime. After several years of dictatorship under Kim ll Sung, Ken became convinced he had to leave North Korea but ironically decided being an ardent Communist would give him the means to do so. Rowe’s zeal caught the attention of the North Korean military and he soon trained to become a fighter pilot.
Ken began flying combat missions in Soviet-built Mig-15 jet fighters in 1951. Although he flew nearly a hundred missions during the course of the war, he sought to avoid dogfights with USAF jet fighters, which enjoyed both qualitative and quantitative advantages. In September 1953, two months after the end of the Korean War Rowe (No) saw his chance. Rowe’s squadron was on a training mission from Sunan Air Base, just outside of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. With near perfect flying weather, Rowe was able to veer away from from his unit and set a course for the 38th parallel into South Korea. He knew the odds were against him to land safely at an American air base, but after a fifteen minute flight Rowe landed safely at Kimpo Air Base, just outside the South Korean capital of Soul. He later discovered the USAF radar was shutdown for maintenance work that morning, though he barely missed a collision with an American jet fighter landing on the same runway from the opposite direction.
Rowe (No) spent the next six months on Okinawa as a consultant to both the USAF and CIA on the capabilities of the Mig-15, as well as providing insight about North Korean air combat strategies. Ken arrived in the United States in 1954, working as a paid contractor to a number of US intelligence agencies. During that time, he often traveled by rail between Washington DC and New York, passing through Newark, Delaware – home of the University of Delaware School of Engineering. Intent on pursuing his education, Rowe enrolled in the UD engineering program, earning degrees in both mechanical and electrical engineering. He was well situated upon graduation, with the $100,000 reward received for defecting with the Mig (of which Rowe was unaware) invested for him and yielding a high rate of return.
When Rowe sought assistance from his CIA handlers in securing a green card to work in the US, they refused. He could only get temporary visas as a result of an agreement between the CIA and the government of South Korea, who wanted him to join their air force upon graduation. From a close relationship with a history professor at UD, Ken was introduced to a Senator from Delaware, who introduced a bill granting him citizenship. The bill was eventually signed by President Eisenhower. The CIA was instructed not to interfere if Rowe sought permanent immigration status on his own.
In 1957 Ken was reunited with his mother, who had been living in South Korea. Though he wasn’t fluent in English, he quickly adapted to life in the United States. Rowe pursued a varied and successful career in aeronautical engineering, working for a number of key aviation firms such as Grumman, General Dynamics, Lockheed and Boeing, as well as General Electric, DuPont and Westinghouse. After leaving the corporate world, Rowe served as an aeronautical engineering professor at Embry-Riddle University, making him a true hero of aviation – both inside and outside of the cockpit.
This blog is the fifth of a series about the heroes of aviation.