Malcolm Rowden walks along Highway 238 in Ruch where it will become a Gold Star Highway, honoring his brothers John and James Rowden, killed in Vietnam. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]

Golden Road

RUCH — The Applegate Valley reverberates with memories for Malcolm Rowden.

It was where his father took him hunting and his mother worked on a turkey ranch. It was also where he last laid eyes on two of his brothers, James and John, Marines who died two years apart in Vietnam.

Both made the ultimate sacrifice for their country in a part of the world they knew little about while growing up. Southeast Asia was a distant corner of the globe with little meaning for youngsters hunting and fishing with their father in the wooded hills and ravines of Southern Oregon.

The Rowden family was the first of four Vietnam double-Gold Star families in Oregon, and one of 39 nationwide as the war escalated following the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Next month signs preserving the memory of the fallen Rowden warriors will be posted on a stretch of Highway 238 not far from the family home. 

The brothers' sacrifice for their country will be commemorated in a 10 a.m. ceremony Tuesday, Oct. 31, at the Medford Eagles Aerie Hall, 2000 Table Rock Road.

A half-century removed from the searing pain of two lost brothers, Malcolm says the Gold Star memorials put things in perspective.

"It will mean that they finally died for a reason," said Malcolm Rowden, the only surviving member of his family. "It means a lot, because back then we went through so much; but it took a long time."

Harvey and Grace Rowden raised their four sons, first in McKee Bridge along the banks of the upper Applegate River, and later just outside Ruch. Harvey Rowden was a Pearl Harbor survivor, injuring his back in the mayhem aboard his ship during the raid. So it wasn't surprising that his oldest son James Herbert Rowden joined the Marines right out of Medford High School in 1962. 

The eldest son was deployed to Vietnam in August 1965. He was four months shy of the end of his tour of duty when when he became the first Jackson County native killed March 5, 1966, in combat near Quang Nagai. James Rowden left behind a widow, Juanita, a 3-year-old son, James Jr., and a daughter, Cynthia, not quite 2 at the time. Jimmy now resides in Washington, while Cynthia moved to the Oregon Coast. Juanita died a few years ago.

Losing his oldest brother was hard to process because he was a dozen years younger, but that wasn't the case when word of John's death came in February 1968.

"I was in school when they told me," he recalled. "It hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn't handle it. I had to go home. At home it was just a sad situation, the whole thing was. Being 10 or 12 at the time, it was unbelievable. I felt a loss, because I would never see them again."

Malcolm remembers John taking him to school as a first-grader, not far from the family home.

"James was that much older," Malcolm Rowden said. "He was already gone off to the war, so I really didn't see him much at all."

Stunned and angered at his brother's fate, John Rowden told the family he had a score to settle.

"He was going to go for revenge, and that was it," Malcolm Rowden said.

No one tried to dissuade him, the younger brother said. "You did it to fight for your country."

A 1998 Mail Tribune story about the family details the Marine Corps findings that led to John Rowden receiving a Silver Star medal. He was a rifleman with Company G, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division during the battle of Hue.

"During Operation Hue City, Pvt. Rowden’s company was maneuvering along a street near the edge of the city when it was taken under intense enemy semi-automatic and automatic weapons fire, which inflicted several casualties and temporarily pinned down the lead squad," read the citation for conspicuous gallantry signed by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Leonard F. Chapman Jr.

"With complete disregard for his own safety, Pvt. Rowden moved forward to assist his beleaguered companions. As he moved across the street, he was wounded by automatic weapons fire in both legs. Realizing that he could not move and that any attempt to help him would result in further casualties, he elected to hold his position and give covering fire for two other Marines who were wounded and in an open area.

"Undaunted by the intense enemy fire, Pvt. Rowden calmly held his position, inflicting numerous casualties on the enemy until he was mortally wounded."

At some point, Malcolm Rowden discovered his brother was a sniper.

"That was interesting, because his glasses were really, really thick," Malcolm Rowden said. "He couldn't see anything without them."

The day after the family was notified of John's death, a draft notice showed up for their son, Douglas Rowden, who was a 19-year-old mill hand at the time.

"We had quite a big `to do’ over that so he (Douglas) wouldn’t have to go," Grace Rowden told the Mail Tribune in 1998.

The family asked for and received a deferment.

Douglas moved to Alaska and worked on the pipeline. He moved around the West and resided in Las Vegas until he died at 62.

Looking through the lens of time, Malcolm Rowden can only shake his head about Vietnam.

"The way I feel about it, we should have never gotten into it," he said. "It never solved anything."

Whenever asked why he didn't join the armed services, he simply said he had no desire.

"My family had already made the sacrifice," he told them. "They'd tell me they were really sorry and would back off."

 — Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or Follow him on Twitter at, and on Facebook at

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