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Chaplain ‘Chose A Higher Way to Live’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Seventy years ago this month, at the Davao Prison Colony on the jungle island of Mindanao in the Philippines, Ted Howden, a 39-year-old father of three from Roswell, died of dysentery and pellagra brought on by starvation.

Howden was a captain in the 200th Coast Artillery Regiment, part of the New Mexico Brigade, when he was shipped off to the Philippines to help fight World War II.

The New Mexico Brigade was in the thick of things. On the 65th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, New Mexico’s then-Sen. Pete Domenici offered a harrowing capsule of what the New Mexicans encountered in the Philippines.

“For four months, the men of the New Mexico Brigade helped hold off the Japanese, only to be defeated by disease, starvation and a lack of ammunition. Sadly, the survivors of the Battle of Bataan from the New Mexico Brigade were subjected to the horrors and atrocities of the 65-mile ‘Death March,’ as well as years of hardship and forced labor in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. Tragically, of the 1,800 men of the New Mexico Brigade, more than 900 never returned home.”

I’ve been thinking about Ted Howden as the remaining survivors of Bataan fall one by one to old age and as thousands of veterans stream home from Iraq and Afghanistan as those wars wind down.

It’s easy to define veterans as their wars, but every man and woman who ships off to conflict was someone else before that first day of boot camp.

Frederick Bingham Howden Jr. (known to his family as “Ted”) was a Yale man and an Episcopal priest before he was ever a soldier. He was the son of the bishop of the Episcopal Missionary District of New Mexico and Southwest Texas, and he served as the rector of St. Andrew’s Church in Roswell, chaplain at the New Mexico Military Institute and vicar to the Episcopalians of Lincoln County. He was also the chaplain of the New Mexico Brigade.

Howden went to war as “Chappy” to men who were mostly Catholics and Native Americans, not Episcopalians, and rose to what was surely the greatest test of his faith as fear and famine reduced his wartime flock.

When members of Episcopal churches throughout New Mexico gather on Tuesday to commemorate the date of Howden’s death, they won’t be celebrating how he fought or how he died, but how he lived as a man of God and integrity, especially in those harrowing months of war, captivity and starvation.

Howden’s actions in the Philippines – holding daily services, building a bamboo chapel as the bombs fell, helping to carry and feed fellow soldiers during the death march, continuing to minister as his health deteriorated in prison camps – are well-documented in history books about the war.

Howden volunteered for military service and stayed with his men when he had the opportunity to evacuate from Bataan.

His granddaughter, Melissa Howden, grew up hearing mythical stories about her absent grandfather, and her curiosity was piqued further when she came across a box of the postcards and letters he sent to his wife, Betta, and sons after he shipped out, as well as condolence letters from the families of men who served with Howden.

The letters started her on a quest to learn more about his short and selfless military career and to understand the toll his absence took on generations of her family.

Her quest led her to make “Be Home Soon: Letters From My Grandfather,” a lyrical documentary film that will be shown on Tuesday at St. John’s Cathedral in Albuquerque directly after the commemoration of Howden.

As she researched the family myth, Melissa Howden told me, “I came to learn he was human, first of all, and with a very high level of integrity and sense of duty. He chose a higher way to live.”

Bishop Michael Vono, who will celebrate Howden’s life at noon at St. John’s on Tuesday, told me Howden has been recognized by the Diocese of the Rio Grande with a feast day on the liturgical calendar – the equivalent of canonization in the Catholic Church – and he hopes that the national church will follow suit.

“He is one of our saints in this diocese. He certainly has characteristics of sanctity because of the way in which he lived his life and was willing to give up his life for the sake of others,” Vono said. “He was giving his food to his fellow compatriots rather than feeding himself.”

With services being held all over the state in commemoration of Howden, Vono said he hopes active military members and veterans are also kept in people’s prayers and that others will find inspiration in the way he lived his faith.

“He was a patriot,” Vono said. “But obviously he was also a very strong and active Christian who believed.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal