In uniform or out, Allen Parker Cowgill was a true member of the Long Gray Line. He was descended from Ellen Cowgill, a widow with seven children, who came to this country in 1683 on the “Welcome” with William Penn’s colony.
Also on the Cowgill side of the family were three generations of men who, in their time, helped shape the territory that is now Kentucky. Allen’s great-great grandfather, Dr. Thomas Walker, led the first white men, The Knights of the Golden Horse Shoe, over the Blue Ridge Mountains into Kentucky 30 years before Daniel Boone's explorations there.
Allen, born in Paducah, Kentucky, on July 17, 1890, was the oldest son of Dr. and Mrs. Warwick Miller Cowgill. Dr. Cowgill, a renowned eye-ear-nose-and-throat specialist, had given up a Park Avenue practice as an associate of the famous specialist Dr. Herman Knapp, to return to the frontier and work among his fellow Kentuckians.
Allen Cowgill inherited from his father his stubborn determination always to act according to principle, and from his mother and her New England forebears the Allen and Parker families, an urge to achieve and the ability to consider whatever task was at hand the most important in the world.
His early life was spent in the river town of Paducah, Kentucky. When he was 13, the family moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, so that the two boys might be educated in Lincoln's superior schools and healthier climate. There Allen stood at the head of his classes: and four years later he entered the University of Nebraska as a student in mechanical engineering, spending two years engrossed in shop work and mechanical drawing.
His first taste of soldiering was in ROTC and as a charter member of Pershing Rifles. While he was at the University he spent both Summer vacations working for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad locomotive shops at Havelock, Nebraska. There he learned at first hand mechanical shop practices, management and operation of machine tools, all of which helped him later in his Army career.
In 1909 he secured a Senatorial appointment to West Point as alternate. His principal failed and Allen passed, standing 65 in his class when he entered on March 1, 1910. For him it was a profound experience to take the oath of allegiance as a cadet, and to stand in the area barracks where Custer had lived. He stood tenth in his class his plebe year. He stood 18th in his yearling year, due to a stretch on the area that involved the loss of yearling corporal chevrons for hazing. Allen received a year on the area, confinement to barracks and the loss of his second class furlough. Later his forthright attitude in accepting discipline caused the Tactical Department to relent, reinstating his last three weeks of furlough and making him an acting first sergeant in first class camp. He stood eighth the third year and was graduated 11th. Allen thoroughly enjoyed West Point as a cadet.
On June 12, 1914, he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers and after a short leave was ordered to the Mexican border, where he served in the mounted section of M Company, 2nd Battalion of Engineers, under Major Lytle Brown, later Chief of Engineers. A close friendship which was to continue for the rest of their lives began at this time. Most of this first year was spent in border patrol and on the brigade rifle range which Allen built. He was an excellent shot with rifle and pistol, and throughout his military career both as a cadet and officer always qualified as “expert.”
On August 16, 1915 Allen and his company, commanded by Captain U. S. Grant, 3rd, were caught in the Galveston flood and hurricane which cost many lives and completely inundated the camp. None of his company was lost. Allen’s saber was rusted in its scabbard when he married his boyhood sweetheart, Helen Mary Schwind, on September 1, 1915, in Francitas, Texas, where she was living at the time. They had met in the Lincoln, Nebraska high school. She attended a boarding school at Poughkeepsie and accompanied Allen to his first cadet hop.
In September 1915 he was ordered to an 18-month course at the Engineer School of the Army in Washington, D.C. Post-graduate studies there in electrical, mechanical, civil, and military engineering were cut short by activities on the Mexican border. On December 23, 1916 Allen was ordered back to the Mexican border, without leave, to join Co. F, 1st Engineers as a Captain.
An example of Allen’s engineering ability is Cowgill Road, so named after his retirement. This 22-mile stretch between San Antonio and Camp Stanley was carved from rock in seven months with Mexican labor, dynamite, and a few catapillar tractors. Allen’s wife and year-old baby were housed in a storage tent between his company and the Mexican labor camp. Rattlesnakes were a constant problem. Among his responsibilities was the supervision of some 300 men, both Mexicans and military personnel.
Equally rigorous was his subsequent duty at Brownsville, Texas, where he assumed the duty of Prison Officer, Judge Advocate of General Courts Martial, and President of Special Courts Martial, until he was commissioned a Major, Corps of Engineers. Also, while at Brownsville, Allen wrote that he “helped push a Ford truck through the desert country to Corpus Christi. It had not rained for five months and the sand was around our shoe tops. I had one lieutenant and one private in my party and we went heavily armed as the country was not safe from Mexican brigands. There was no water or firewood. My report on the highway was not favorable.”
In January 1918 Allen went to Fort Sam Houston as engineering instructor under General “Patsy” Dugan at Brigade and Field Officers School. “I had 100 Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels of the National Guard in my first class for mapping and explosives,” he wrote.
Allen’s next orders suited him well. Under his command a standard gauge railroad was constructed, running from Accotink Junction of the Richmond Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad to Camp A. A. Humphreys (now Fort Belvoir). During construction, trees were cut down to make trestles 60-feet high. Russian steel rails were used on the roadbed. “I had 500 men, Negro service troops, white volunteers, national army civilians, and most of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s 102nd New York Engineers...but only three steam shovels,” a letter reports. Although the trestles have been filled in, the railroad line today is as Allen built it.
On June 15, 1918, Allen was ordered to West Point to serve as senior instructor of Practical Military Engineering, Mapping, Pontoon Bridges and Signaling. That Winter he was senior instructor in second year mathematics.
General William Wyman, commanding General of the Continental Army, recently had the following to say of Allen as an instructor: “He was one of the best as a mathematics instructor at the Point. He taught me my yearling math and he made it stick.” Among other students who remember him with appreciation are General Alfred M. Gruenther, General Nathan F. Twining, and General Alfred C. Wedemeyer.
This was a hard time for Allen as he had hoped that he would be ordered to France upon completion of the railroad. In spite of intense disappointment, Allen put himself to the task at hand, serving his country by laying out the first course at West Point in Motor Transportation. It was unfortunate but characteristic that Allen would drive himself to a point where the nerve control of his heart was affected by overwork. Allen collapsed at the end of five hours of recitations in May 1919. Later he was ordered aboard the U.S.E.D. sea-going dredge “Raritan” in New York Harbor for the Summer, as part of his recuperation. This he thoroughly enjoyed, as it gave him experience in navigation which became a hobby for the rest of his life.
On September 1, 1919 after he had partially recovered, Allen and his family were ordered to the Philippines. He commanded the 1st Battalion, 3rd Engineers, at Fort McKinley, which included a company at Corregidor. He also served, due to lack of senior officers, as Department Engineer of the Philippines. One job at this time was the laying out of Nichols Field. It was during the period he was serving as Department Engineer that the preliminary grid survey of Bataan Peninsula was started. As a result of the improvement in artillery during World War I, especially the reduction of Liege by the German heavy artillery, it was realized that Corregidor could not be held without Bataan...as was proved in World War II. Bataan at that time was an uncharted jungle with only its shore line mapped. A grid survey was ordered. This was to be used later as a basis for planning surfaced roads, supply dumps, and other military installations.
The Bataan jungle bred all kinds of fever, but despite jungle and fever the survey went on. Allen enjoyed the night hunting that went with it.
Unfortunately, progress on the Bataan operation slowed when the Siberian Expeditionary Force was withdrawn from Siberia and sent to the Philippines, where they came under Allen’s command. These troops, largely recruits that had been sent out in 1919 to replace the original personnel of the expeditionary force, were untrained, undisciplined and filled with Bolshevik indoctrination. Mutiny and rioting soon broke out. Not a single engineer officer was available for Allen’s battalion and Allen was forced to borrow Scout and Infantry officers to restore discipline. In addition to his other duties as Department Engineer, Allen had to spend a great deal of time both day and night in restoring order to these new troops.
While Allen was doing his utmost for the job at hand, his old trouble affecting the nerve control of his heart returned. On August 2, 1920 he was ordered back to Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco. It is sadly ironical that eight engineer officers arrived for assignment to Allen’s battalion just after he was relieved.
His heart did not respond to treatment and rest and, therefore, on February 8, 1921 Allen was retired as a Major, U.S. Army, for disability in the line of duty.
On retirement Allen returned to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he and his family established their home. In 1923 Allen was elected Superintendent of Streets and Public Improvements and a member of the City Council. During his two years in office Allen made great improvements in the Street Department, motorizing it and providing snow equipment for the first time. “I found the Street Department was still using teams of horses,” he wrote. Allen’s work on public building, paving and sewers was outstanding.
Allen returned to the University of Nebraska to obtain a degree in Mathematics and Astronomy in 1930 and the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Mathematics and Civil Engineering in June 1935. He was awarded full membership in Sigma Xi, the scientific honorary society, in May 1936 and his thesis was published by the American Mathematics Society, of which he was a member.
In 1936, through Professor John J. Caton, Director of the Chrysler Institute of Engineering, Detriot, Allen was appointed head of the Mathematics Department of Indiana Technical College in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In 1938 he transferred to Syracuse University, where he was professor of Engineering Mathematics in the College of Applied Sciences until his retirement in 1947.
Allen was a patient and thorough teacher with an intense feeling of responsibility towards his students. He was tireless in his efforts to assist his serious and ambitious students and kept in touch with any number of them after their graduation.
Allen belonged and took active part in the American Mathematic Society, Indiana Academy of Science, the Technology Club of Syracuse, Pi Mu Epsilon (Honorary Mathematical Society) and Sigma Xi. Allen is listed in Who’s Who in Engineering and American Men of Science.
His retirement was a happy one. He continued his studies and took increasing pleasure in renewing ties with his past army life. Living comparatively close to West Point, Allen made frequent trips to the Military Academy each year. He seldom missed a June week; his wife and daughter Mary Allen accompanied him to his 40th reunion in 1954.
Proof of Allen’s sentiment towards West Point was evidenced by the fact that he obtained permission from the vestry of St. Paul's Episcopal Church of Syracuse, to which he belonged, to allow him to change a stained glass window dedicated to Major General John James Peck, Class of 1843. In June 1953, on the 110th anniversary of General Peck’s graduation, Allen replaced a design in the upper section of the window with the coat of arms of West Point.
During World War II, Allen’s request for active duty was declined on the basis of his physical record. Allen did have the satisfaction, however, of following the career of his son, William Parker Cowgill, who was in armored infantry until his retirement as a First Lieutenant, U.S.A., for wounds received during the Battle of the Bulge, while serving with the 4th Armored Division of General George Patton’s 3rd Army.
Allen and Helen spent many happy Summers at the small cottage, “Little Oaks”, on Lake Ontario, which they built themselves. They were accompanied by their much loved collies, Scout, Prince, and Randy.
Allen died in his sleep February 27, 1955 of a cerebral hemorrhage at his home in Syracuse, New York. Major Allen Parker Cowgill was buried among others of the Long Gray Line in the West Point Cemetery.
He is survived by his wife, Helen; daughters Mary Allen and Helen Louise, of Syracuse, New York; his son William Parker Cowgill and five grandchildren of Pittsford, New York; and by his brother William W. Cowgill of Washington. D.C., and Fairfield, Connecticut, a graduate of the class of 1917.
Allen was always completely loyal to all the traditions of his heritage and training. He carried responsibility with the utmost integrity and loyalty. He never was allowed to use his training in action. He never held high command in the Army but he did accomplish every mission that was given him. He used all his talents to the limit of his ability.
He lived by the code of West Point all his life. He loved "Duty Honor Country.”
- Miss H. Louise Cowgill