WWI/WWII Veteran: Colonel Edward J. Towers
Date: August 25, 1983
NJNG oral history audiotape transcript
Text in brackets editorially added by Joseph Bilby on May 15, 2006
This is First Lieutenant Glenn MacDonald of the Public Affairs Office, NJSTARC. This one-hour audio taped interview was conducted 25 August 1983 with Colonel Edward J. Towers, retired. This interview was made for the Jersey Guard's Oral History Program. Colonel Towers is [as of 1983] the oldest living National Guardsman in the United States. He was a racecar mechanic at the first Indianapolis 500 competition in 1911 and is the only surviving participant.
1LT MacDonald: Colonel Towers, you enlisted in Battery C, 1st Battalion Field Artillery of the New Jersey National Guard in 1916. Would you tell us about your experiences along the Mexican border chasing the outlaw renegade Pancho Villa?
COL Towers: We left Tobyhanna Pennsylvania on a complete crew train. We had all our equipment and horses. We arrived in Douglas, Arizona after about four days and detrained there, and the campsite was already there and had been used by other units. We had no trouble with the housing. Our greatest trouble was with our feeding, our eating and our cooking. We had no cooking, and we were bad off for our meals, but we made it somehow or another. Douglas is right across the border from Agua Prieta in Mexico. It's about halfway between Bisbee, [Arizona] and Columbus [New Mexico]. It was very warm in the daytime and very, very cold at night. We spent most of our time in training and developed a fine unit.
1LT MacDonald: Colonel, what happened when your unit returned from the Mexican Border?
COL Towers: We immediately were sent to Sea Girt, New Jersey, where the 44th Division was mobilized. We started training there as part of the 112th Field Artillery, and I was there two weeks when I was sent to the Second Officers'
Training Camp in Fort Myers, Virginia. At Fort Myers, I was commissioned a first lieutenant of Field Artillery and assigned to the 312th Field Artillery in Camp Meade, Maryland. I was assigned as regimental motor officer, but after about four weeks, an order came through assigning all first lieutenants to take the aviation examination. We had to take the aviation examination and of course we passed it, or at least I passed it. And we had a choice of aerial observing from a plane or a balloon. I selected the balloon because I had an idea that was a little safer, because I had a parachute. Well it was an exceedingly interesting proposition. Of course we were then a part of the aviation section of the Signal Corps, which eventually became the Air Corps. We had a few incidents in Fort Omaha, Nebraska and Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in which balloon cables were severed by a flying plane, or a balloon broke loose, and things of that kind, and they were highly exciting. Having completed the course, I was assigned to San Antonio, Texas to join an outgoing company, but unfortunately, before the assignment materialized, the war was over.
ILT MacDonald: Colonel Towers, after the war ended, you were honorably discharged and then reentered military service as a captain with Battery C in 1921.
Would you describe what life was like as a Guard artilleryman in those years of the 1920s?
COL Towers: It was very interesting upon this reorganization, and it sort of felt good to be back in service. Fortunately we were able to sign up a lot of good people who had had experience, which gave us an excellent opportunity for the selection of officer material. The units continued to grow, and there was great rivalry between the different batteries, and we really thought that we developed into one of the finest field artillery regiments in the country.
ILT MacDonald: Sir, upon the decision to organize the field artillery in New Jersey, what was your role in setting up C Battery, and how quickly did you progress up the ladder in rank?
COL Towers: We were blessed by having quite a few people who had previous experience, and the battalions developed quickly to a regiment, and by 1936 I was then a colonel in command of the regiment. As a matter of fact, I had the unusual luck of being an enlisted man before it was a regiment and getting to command it, which of course I always held in great value; I mean, to think of just being in a regiment before it was actually a regiment and finally getting to the point where you command it. We were then mobilized in World War II. We went to Camp Dix, New Jersey. Shortly after mobilization there, the hierarchy decided to change the composition of a division. We [44th Division] were a "square" division with three artillery regiments to a brigade - two lights and a medium. They decided to do away with the regimental composition and have nothing but battalions. Battalions were easier to handle because they'd be assigned under a group and, consequently, a lot of us colonels were out of a job.
After some delay, I was lucky enough to be assigned another regiment, the 193rd Field Artillery, with the two leftover battalions from the Pennsylvania Division. Shortly thereafter, I commanded the 193rd Field Artillery for a short time, at which time I transferred to the Ordnance Department. The Ordnance Department was not exactly what I wanted, but it was right in my line because I'm an automobile man and I love ordnance, as I love weapons, powder, anything of that sort, and was assigned the 227th Ordnance Group, and finally wound up in Vincennes outside of Paris, in the world's largest ordnance depot, and a most interesting service until the end of the war.
ILT MacDonald: Colonel Towers, can you tell us about the Jersey Guard's Polo Team of which you were a part?
COL Towers: Polo developed shortly after the reorganization, principally in the cavalry regiment, the 102nd Cavalry, because all of their horses were light cavalry mounts, and they had a better chance of developing polo ponies than we had in the artillery. And our artillery horses were usually very heavy draft horses. But we played along, and after three or four years we developed a bit of a polo team up in the artillery in East Orange, where it practically began. Then they started playing down here in Lawrenceville, where they had a couple of polo teams and were able to influence some people. They developed a fine polo team, and it was great rivalry between the cavalry and the field artillery, and we had many good polo games for years. Besides, we traveled. We played a lot of polo in Pennsylvania. We traveled to New York, different parts, and we took our horses to camp and played the regulars every place we'd go, and I will never forget the fine times we had with our polo.
1LT MacDonald: Colonel, what officer in your 33 years of military service do you admire the most and why?
COL Towers: That's rather a difficult question because we really had some outstanding people, but I think among those my best recollection is Major General Jimmy Cantwell. Cantwell and I were very great friends. He was a fine soldier and a great organizer and, of course, he was an engineer by profession and lent himself nicely to the field artillery. But outside of that, he was a great administrator. For many years he was head of the National Guard Association; for several years he was head of the Adjutant Generals' Association. I could go on and on and tell you about the fine things Cantwell has done. He's done more for the state of New Jersey constructively than any man that I ever knew. He got rid of two of the big armories in the state that became absolutely useless. He built a lot of smaller repair shops, armories, and things of that kind and put the housing of the state in find shape. One of his best monuments is the big armory in West Orange, and Headquarters down in Lawrenceville.
This is all his handiwork, and we spent a great deal of time together and did a lot of traveling together. I was heartbroken when, not too long ago, having seen Jim five or six days before, I found out that he had died. We lost somebody in New Jersey that's irreplaceable. He was the best administrator the state of New Jersey ever had, and the Guard was in splendid shape when he stepped down. We all miss him very much.
ILT MacDonald: Colonel Towers, can you tell us what the National Guard has meant to you in your life?
COL Towers: Well, having spent many years in the Guard and, may I say, watched it grow, one of the two things I think that meant the most to me in my life, the other of course is more personal and that's my own Chief of Staff, Mrs.
Towers, who happens to be the CO around here. I think that the Guard is just absolutely a necessity. I think that any youngster that takes advantage of the opportunities that are presented to him in the Guard and doesn't do it is just wasting his time, because actually he does it in his spare time; if he has a job he works, but he has a certain time that he has to go to the armory.
And the associations that develop, you can just never forget. The first line of my favorite people are all military, and I certainly would advise any youngster; it would do himself a lot of good, and he would do his country a lot of good, and it's a means of getting an education nowadays that he wouldn't have otherwise. I certainly recommend the Guard.
ILT MacDonald: Colonel Towers, what functions does the New Jersey Guard have in peacetime, and what benefit does it provide to the community?
COL Towers: The National Guard is the second police force in the state. It provides protection against disasters. It's the helpmate of the Fire Department and the Police Department. It's absolutely valuable in disasters, floods, fire, and things of that type, by reason of the fact that the present day Guard has the most unusual equipment with which they can provide most any kind of help that may come up. They have trucks, bulldozers, helicopters…. They have anything that's needed and they are available, I might say, at a minute's notice. They can call out the Guard, and they'll have more Guardsmen around there that would surprise you. They all pop up when anything happens. They're always ready to go, and, of course, beyond that they're part of the defense, state and nation, and if and when called upon they're usually reasonably well trained and ready to participate in anything that may happen.
ILT MacDonald: Sir, how do you compare the training of Guardsmen in your time with that of today's citizen soldier?
COL Towers: That's a very hard question to answer. I've been in the Guard a long time. In the very early days of my service, it consisted of marching, shooting the rifle or shooting a gun, or working on a gun squad, and all that sort of thing, but was very simple. Today that doesn't exist. This idea of the marching and one thing or another, sure it's fine and they do it very well, but now they know so much more about what they work with, and it's so much more technical, and these people have the best equipment to work with. They have the very latest in firearms, and very latest in trucks, and all kinds of vehicles. It's absolutely impossible to make a comparison. It's just like black and white.
ILT MacDonald: Colonel, would you tell us how prepared the Guard was to go to war when federalized in 1940  and how you feel today's Guard can meet the challenge if called upon to fight our nation's enemies?
COL Towers: When we went to the border  our equipment was absolutely antiquated, and we had equipment which would break down very readily with the six-horse hitch. That was before the ordnance in our country was in very bad shape and, of course, shortly thereafter they started to bring in the French 75s and 155s [75mm and 155mm artillery pieces]. When I was with the 312th in 1917, we didn't have a weapon in the regiment. We had a full complement of troops. We had six old Krag Jorgensen rifles [Spanish American War rifles] used for guard duty and [in] the artillery section the boys would make tripods and all kinds of handmade equipment to measure the deflections [range adjustments right and left for artillery pieces] and try to do a little artillery work. Now the equipment that I see is just beyond compare. They have the most beautiful equipment and the most beautiful communications. Down at the border, we used to have a wigwag [signal flags] and a couple of flag wavers for communications, and nowadays everything is radio, and looks like every squad in the infantry has a radio, and it's just beautiful to comprehend.
ILT MacDonald: Colonel, what are some of the more unusual anecdotes that you can recall from your life in the New Jersey National Guard?
COL Towers: Well, that's a rather hard question, but there's just so many of them that I have trouble in picking any one particular one, but it just happened to strike me at the moment, that when we left Jersey to go to the border, this troop train - there weren't two people on it that had ever made a troop movement - and we had three thousand miles to go. Well, in the first place, we had to load our horses. That wasn't too much of a problem, but it's always a problem when people are not too well trained, but our loading and unloading was well done. As you quite well know, in a stock car you load your horses, head to heel. It so happened that somebody had forgotten all about the salt proposition. Well you know horses love salt, matter of fact they just must have some, so when it became acute, they reach over and pull the hair off the tail of the horse next to them. Now when we unloaded in Douglas, Arizona, the horses had no tails. Now you can tell that to some people and they will tell you you're crazy. There was no hair on the tails. We put them on the picket line and here were all these horses along there with a stump about a foot and a half long, absolutely raw meat. Now amazing, but two months after they all had beautiful tails, and that's a gospel fact!