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James Dowling

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Screen shot from the "Faces of War" video

By James B. Teese

A leader in all aspects of his life, James Edward Dowling, called ‘Red’ by those close to him, lived a life worthy of countless honors and adjectives, inspiring fellow veterans, citizens and officials along the way. He helped save a world from tyranny and helped build a better community.

James Dowling and his wife, Dorothy, in a family photo.

Red Dowling passed away last week at the age of 99 — a husband, father, grandfather, WWII veteran and prisoner of war, community leader, public servant, and — as many have declared in similar terms — a good man with a heart of gold.

From drafted teenager to hero

Dowling played football and ran track for Smithtown High School before being drafted in 1943. He became a bombardier/navigator for the 703rd Squadron, 445th Bomb Group in the 8th Army Air Corps, where his flight leader was the famous actor Jimmy Stewart.

He went on to earn the rank of 2nd lieutenant and fly several missions. On the fateful day of September 27, 1944, during his 11th mission on a bombing run over Kassel, Germany, his plane was shot down and he was taken as a prisoner of war. He survived to return home as a decorated WWII veteran. His tale is featured in the “Faces of War” video series. Further, he has an entire chapter written about him in Tom Brokaw’s book — “The Greatest Generation.”

“We lost one of the greatest individuals in Smithtown history,” said Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim, a Vietnam veteran. “[He] left his mark on the world in ways that will echo throughout future generations in the most prolific of ways. His stories from the battlefield have been etched in books and TV interviews, so that we will never forget the definition and true meaning of a hero.”

“As a veteran of the Vietnam War,” said veterans’ advocate Kevin O’Hare, of Kings Park, “I looked up to Jim Dowling as a true war hero who served in WWll. Here is a man who not only served his country, but also was a POW. It was my honor to be part of the veteran video for the Town of Smithtown this past November and to be interviewed alongside my hero.”

When POW Lt. Dowling returned home, simply settling down to enjoy life was not good enough. Keeping a promise, he made before going to war, he married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy, fathered eight children and continued to be the shining example of service and sacrifice for his own burgeoning family, and also the children of the community.

He started the St. James Little League for kids in the neighborhood and served in the capacity of president for nearly two decades.

To provide for his family, on his return home, he began a construction business and started Red’s Seafood. He delivered clams all over the tri-state area including Fulton Fish Market in downtown Manhattan.

James Dowling, left, with state Assemblyman Mike Fitzpatrick on Memorial Day in 2019. Photo by James Teese

Serving Smithtown

His service to Smithtown continued when he was elected as Smithtown Highway Superintendent, running the department for nearly four decades from 1960 to 1998. By operating the office with military efficiency, he successfully created 250 miles of permanent roads. In addition, he altered the way the municipality dealt with snowstorms by making the department’s response more proactive. In doing so, he helped set the precedent of a system that is implemented nationwide to this day.

“Jim Dowling will be remembered as one of Smithtown’s greatest citizens,” said state Assemblyman Michael Fitzpatrick, who served on the Town Council when Dowling led the highway department.

“Upon his return, he ran for highway superintendent and developed a snow-removal team that was the best in New York State and run with military precision … he was a mentor to me during my years in Town Hall, and I owe him a great debt of gratitude for all the help and guidance he gave me,” Fitzpatrick said.

“As parks director, I worked closely together with Jim,” Wehrheim added. “He was always a gentleman and a consummate professional. He built many of the roads and infrastructure we use each day.”

Family legacy

Dowling is now reunited with his high school sweetheart, the late Dorothy (Owen) Dowling, with whom he became an adored ‘Pop’ of 25 grandchildren, 33 great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.

He will be remembered as a loving father to James Dowling Jr., Douglas and Jeanne Dowling, Jeffrey and Aniela Dowling, Janet and Brett Weingarten, Jean Dowling, Elizabeth and Robert Elderkin, Gregory and Donna Dowling, and William and Christine Dowling.

He will be further remembered as an avid golfer and “one heck of a Gin Rummy player.”  He was a member of St. George’s Golf and Country Club for over 50 years.

As the family noted, “Jim Dowling lived an amazing life and loved every minute of it. He will be
greatly missed.”

“Most of all, Jim was a good man with a heart of gold,” Wehrheim said. “His memory and legacy will live on in the hearts and minds of all who were blessed to know him.”

“Jim Dowling was, truly, a great human being,” added Fitzpatrick.

So agrees a grateful township and nation. RIP Red Dowling.