Sowell has seen the world with Merchant Marines

Published 8:55 pm Wednesday, March 14, 2007

By Staff
Senior Living
(This week The Atmore Advance spotlights Lafayette Sowell, 85, of Atmore. Sowell spent many years as a Merchant Marine, traveling to many various parts of the world.)
Q: When and where were you born?
A: I was born in Conecuh Co. on Oct. 14, 1921. I don't remember when we left there. We lived in McKenzie and then moved to Mobile. I lived in Mobile most of my life. We moved to Atmore in 1992.
Q: Who were your parents?
A: My parents were Ollie Sowell and Dovie.
Q: Do you have any brothers or sisters?
A: I have one sister who is still alive, Ruth Roberts; she lives in Pensacola, Fla. I had six brothers and sisters that passed away.
Q: Where did you attend high school and college?
A: I went to school in Munson and only finished the ninth grade.
Q: Do you do a lot of traveling?
A: We used to have an RV. I got married in 1991, traveled a lot from 1991 until 2001, about 10 years. The furthest we went was Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas. My favorite place was Claremore, Okla. The Will Rogers Museum is one of the most interesting places I went to that stands out in my mind. That's about 25 miles from Tulsa.
Q: What jobs have you held?
A: My first job was at CC Camp in Uriah when I was 17. I was an operating engineer most of my life, mostly on cranes. I worked mostly with steam cranes until diesel took over. I have some experience on locomotive diesel engines.
I worked in the shipyard before the war started. I then went in the Merchant Marines. I sailed on one of the ships that we built.
When I was on the first ship, I met the girlfriend of a fella I worked with at the shipyard. She said that he, Russell, got killed on a ship. He was on a tanker and probably got burned alive. The tanker collided with another ship. The ship it collided with was loaded with airplane gas. Only seven out of the whole crew lived. The gas ship burned for 52 days to burn the gas off. There was ammunition on board so they let it burn because they were scared to get close to it.
I went to Merchant Marines school in St. Petersburg. I volunteered as a gunner there. I made two trips across the Pacific as a gunner on SS Fort Stephenson. I made my third trip into the Pacific with a load of fuel on a tanker headed to the Philippines when the Japanese surrendered. We had a load of Navy fuel and we fueled them up but the Japanese surrendered. I went to Aruba, Italy, Panama and other places during the war. I traveled over 100,000 miles in the war. There were 64 merchant ships in the convoy. When we got on the ships we didn't know what kind of cargo we would be carrying, where we were going, when we were coming back and we had no lights.
During the war there were 13 ships that were lost without anybody knowing what happened to the crew and all the cargo.
We once took a load of 320 mules. We went to Leghorn and caught a bus during the World War II and we went to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. We saw the Cathedral; the ceiling was about 60 feet high. The alter was inlaid with a million dollars worth of gold. The tower had spiral stairs and had bells in the top, seven big bells used for signaling different things.
After the war we converted some Navy ships back to merchant ships in Chickasaw. When I quit that job I started firing on the crane. We started cutting up ships, we would cut them in two and a crane would pick it up and put it on a flat railroad car. I did that for about 15 months. Then I went with operating engineers to unload oyster shell barges. I worked at that company about 13 months.
Then I worked with Ryan Stevedore Company in loading ships and handling ships in Gulfport, Miss. for about three years. I then came back to Mobile to unload barges, ships and work an operating crane. Then I worked at Marine Buck Handling Operation, that's where I retired from in 1983.
Q: Did you ever marry?
A: I have been married for 16 years to Christine Sowell. I was married for 44 years and seven months to Pearl until she past away.
Q: Do you have any children or grandchildren?
A: I had three children, two girls and one boy. They are Gloria, Annette and Virgil. They live in Mobile and one lives out of Wilmer. I have five grandchildren, Tina, Little Tina, Terry, Sherry and Danny. I have two stepchildren, Sheila and Sandra.
Q: Where do you attend church?
A: Atmore First Assembly of God for 56 years.
Q: What keeps you busy these days?
A: Doctors. I've had cancer twice. I have had an open heart surgery, had radiation for cancer, and had my bladder and prostate removed. I had a stint put in my heart last September and a pacemaker put in six months later. I am all patched up.
For fun, I eat. My wife and I play games. We play "Hand 'n foot" a lot now. We like to go to Wal-Mart.
Q: What's your favorite television show?
A: I like "Jeopardy," "Price is Right" and the "Wheel of Fortune." I like the "700 Club" and John Hagey, he's a preacher.
Q: What advice would you like to give people on staying healthy?
A: I always worked hard. You need to exercise. I have a Gazelle(r) that I work on every morning. I stretch every morning before the Gazelle(r). Stretching has really helped my back.
(If you would like to recommend a senior to be spotlighted please contact Adrienne McKenzie at 368-2123 or e-mail her at

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