MOSES LAKE — Clyde Owen, the last commander of Larson Air Force Base and the first executive director of the Port of Moses Lake, died Monday evening. He was 100.
“If you got to know him, you were pretty blessed,” said Port Commissioner David “Kent” Jones. “He was quite a guy.”
“He was an officer and a gentleman in every sense of the word,” said Larry Godden, general manager of aviation service company Million Air in Moses Lake.
“On behalf of the city I wish to send the family our greatest sympathy and condolences,” said Moses Lake Mayor Karen Liebrecht. “Clyde gave so much to the community and truly will be remembered and missed.”
“He was a great guy,” she added. “A really great guy.”
Born in 1918, Owen grew up in Kansas and took his first airplane ride in “an old open cockpit Jenny” built during World War I, Owen told the Columbia Basin Herald in a 2014 interview.
While studying at Kansas State College (now Kansas State University), Owen enlisted in the National Guard in 1940 to avoid the newly instituted peacetime draft prior to World War II. However, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Owen’s unit was federalized and he soon found himself on active duty in California, where he earned his pilot’s wings in 1942.
In 1943, Owen was deployed to Europe and flew B-26 bombers in support of Allied operations in southern Italy, including the landing at Anzio, where Owen’s plane was hit by German anti-aircraft fire and forced down.
“I wasn’t a volunteer,” Owen said of the mission.
Owen said his parachute, however, got caught on his seat, and he wasn’t able to bail out over German-occupied territory with the rest of the crew.
“I was the only one of the crew to escape from the Germans,” Owen said in 2014. “I came down within 300 to 400 feet of the enemy gun battery.”
After a six-month convalescence in an Army hospital in Naples, Owen continued with his military service, transferring to the Air Force when it was established in 1947 and continuing on as a bomber pilot, serving around the world before coming to Moses Lake in 1961.
“In the course of time I flew over 20 different kinds of aircraft,” Owen said in 2014. “I ended up flying the B-52.”
As commander of Larson Air Force Base, he oversaw a wing of B-52 bombers and KC-135 tankers, and even hosted President John F. Kennedy during a brief stop in 1963.
“I was the official escort of the president when he came,” Owen said during a Rotary luncheon honoring his 100th birthday last year. “He was on the ground for 30 minutes. Communication was not so good in 1963, so we had instructions from the Secret Service that he wanted a phone. So we strung one out to the airplane.”
By the mid-1960s, Owen and his wife Audrey had fallen in love with Moses Lake. So it was difficult to tell this farm town in the middle of central Washington that the Department of Defense had decided to close the base in 1966.
“The only industry was the U&I sugar plant,” Owen said in 2014. “A lot of people thought Moses Lake was going to dry up and blow away.”
But it didn’t, in large part thanks to Owen, who helped form and then lead the Port of Moses Lake for the next 17 years.
“The commissioners offered such a good job I couldn’t turn it down,” Owen said.
While Owen didn’t singlehandedly create the port, he helped create the environment that made it possible for large companies like Union Carbide (the current REC Silicon plant) to build production facilities and Japan Air Lines to train its pilots here, according to Port Commissioner Jones.
“His legacy is obvious. Without his foresight, we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are,” Jones said. “It wasn’t all him. But he understood aviation. He was a great people guy too.”
Jones said that Owen was both alert and well enough to go out to the POML, visit with the B-52 crews and see the airplanes that deployed here in mid-May.
In addition to running the Port, Owen was very involved in the Moses Lake Chamber of Commerce, the Grant County Planning Commission, and the Big Bend Community College Foundation. He was also a member of the Rotary Club of Moses Lake, and served as the club’s president from 1979 to 1980.
After retiring from the Port of Moses Lake in 1984, Owen said he and his wife Audrey also traveled extensively, visiting Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and China.
“We hit everywhere there was to hit,” he said in 2014.
But Moses Lake had become his home.
“Fifty-five years ago, when I was sent to Larson Air Force Base, I never dreamed I’d be here at 100,” Owen said at the Rotary luncheon last year. “When I retired, my mind was made up. This is our town.”
In 2018, the Port of Moses Lake Commission decided to create a small commemorative park and aircraft viewing area just east of the main terminal. Construction work began earlier this year, and it was finished in time for the airshow in the middle of June. However, Jones said that Owen never saw the park — he wasn’t well enough to make it out to the Port.
“He was a month short of being 101. Most of us don’t get anywhere near that much time on earth,” Jones said.
Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at email@example.com.