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Verbena choir sings praises of WWII heroster

MOBILE – Nearly all of the members of the Verbena United Methodist Church Choir traveled some 180 miles Saturday from their central Alabama town to a state veterans home in Bay Minette to celebrate in song the 90th birthday of a homegrown World War II hero and ex-POW.

About 15 choir members gathered around Oscar Excell Howard at the William F. Green Veterans Home and embraced him with the words, “What have I to dread, What have I to fear, leaning on the everlasting arms?”

Howard, family members said, weighed about 80 pounds when he was released from a German POW camp following seven months of captivity after his P-51 Mustang aircraft was shot down over the Black Forest.

On hand for the celebration in the home’s dining hall were family members, including his wife of 65 years, Pearl Howard, who married him April 24, 1943, before he was shipped overseas. “I think it’s wonderful that he has made it this long,” she said Saturday. “So many of them didn’t.”

Oscar Howard told a reporter he has been a member of the small Chilton County church since 1928 and said of the choir’s tribute, “It’s a great honor. I feel very fortunate.” He noted that he was a rural route mail carrier before he went into the Amy Air Corps and returned to that job after the war was over.

A member of the choir, Bob Taylor, 59, said they wanted to honor Howard because, “He was just a integral part of the church for decades.” He noted that Howard sang as a tenor in the choir for many years and had been a Bible study teacher.

Howard continued to be active in the church until a few years ago when he suffered a series of strokes, family members said, but his mind remains sharp.

Howard wore a black POW-MIA cap as he sang along with the choir members’ heartfelt renditions of songs from their Methodist hymnals, including, “He Leadeth Me,” “To God be the Glory” and “Blessed Assurance.”

Another choir member, Kathy Hopper, 57, said she has been a member of the church for nearly 50 years and noted, “Mr. Howard was a spiritual father to me as well as many others. Everybody loves him dearly.” She also called him, “a gentle spirit.”

The veteran’s birthday was being celebrated Saturday because the choir could not be present for his actual birthday, which is next Friday.

When Howard was 78, he wrote an autobiographical outline of his life at the urging his family. In it he noted, “I estimate my weight was about 80 pounds when our POW camp was liberated. For about two more weeks I did nothing but eat, and when I finally arrived home, I weighed more than had ever weighed – 162 pounds.”

Howard wrote further, “The word that my family had gotten in March of 1945 was that dog tags had been found on a body in Germany on which was engraved the name Oscar E. Howard. A letter from the U.S. Department of Defense to my wife said that I was missing in action – presumed dead. The letter related that my plane had exploded and there was no word of any survivors. So Pearl, and my parents, lived with this information for several months. Many prayers were lifted up for me.”

Howard, a 1st lieutenant, also wrote that after he came home, he and his wife “talked about what I would do after the Army. We discussed college, but the mail route paid more than teachers were making, so we decided to keep what we were certain of. I was discharged in November (1945), went back to the mail route December 1st – exactly one year after I had bailed out over Germany.”

He was his hometown’s rural route carrier for some 40 years.

In his autobiography, Howard noted that he and his wife were blessed with three children. “We have had a full, rich life and I can thankfully end this little story with the classic phrase ‘and they lived happily ever after,’” he wrote.

They went on to have seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, including many living in the Mobile area.

He concluded his autobiography: “I know how David felt when he said: ‘O that men would praise the Lord for His goodness and for His wonderful works to the children of men.’”