Vice Admiral Harold G. Bowen Sr. USN

Inducted: 1992
Born: 1883
Died: 1965

Harold Gardiner Bowen Sr. was a United States Navy Vice admiral, former head of the Office of Naval Research, and a mechanical engineer. He was the recipient of the Distinguished Service Medal, and he was the namesake of the USS Bowen. He was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on November 6, 1883, to Amos Miller Bowen and Eliza Rhodes Henry. His father had been a Union officer during the Civil War and served in the Rhode Island House of Representatives for six years. 

Bowen graduated from the United States Naval Academy in January 1905. He was assigned to the USS Maryland in 1905 and the USS Dixie in 1906. He received his commission in the spring of 1907 and was assigned to the USS Kansas during the first leg of the Great White Fleet, the popular nickname for the group of United States Navy battleships that completed a journey around the globe from December 16, 1907, to February 22, 1909, by order of President Theodore Roosevelt. It consisted of 16 battleships divided into two squadron, along with various small escorts, and earned its moniker for the stark white paint on its hulls. The fleet’s primary mission was to make friendly courtesy visits to numerous countries while displaying new U.S. naval power to the world. Roosevelt sought to demonstrate growing American military prowess and blue-water naval capabilities. Another goal was to deter a threatened war with Japan amid growing tensions around 1907.      

The fleet’s capital ships were already obsolete compared to the British dreadnoughts in 1907. Nevertheless, it was by far the largest and most powerful fleet that had ever circled the globe. The mission was a success at home and in every country that was visited, including in Europe, which was visited only briefly. The voyage helped familiarize the 14,500 officers and sailors with the logistical and planning needs for extended fleet action far from home. After long neglecting the Navy, Congress started generous appropriations in the late 1880s. Beginning with just 90 small ships, over one-third of them wooden and obsolete, and the Navy quickly added new steel fighting vessels.

Bowen was transferred to the USS Hopkins as the executive officer in 1910. The ship suffered a boiler accident during which two sailors were killed. Bowen assumed command of the ship as a lieutenant. He earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Columbia University and began serving as Chief Engineer on several ships. He was attached to the USS Tennessee in 1914, followed by assignments to the USS Pittsburgh and Arizona. Bowen spent three years ashore as a shop superintendent and later as an Engineer officer of the Mare Island Navy Yard. He became Assistant Fleet Engineer under Admiral Edward Eberle, Commander of the Battle Fleet. Bowen served as Production Manager of Puget Sound Navy Yard in 1930. As Chief of the Bureau of Engineering, Bowen was a champion for researching and developing high-pressure, high-temperature steam propulsion. This technology radically changed maritime steam turbine operation, increasing the speed and range of Navy ships during World War II. Bowen championed vital research, such as Radar.

Bowen was Director of the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) from 1939 to 1941. According to Ivan Amato, in “Pushing the Horizon,” a history of the Naval Research Laboratory, Bowen’s leadership of NRL was mixed. He championed vital research, such as Radar, yet his personality conflicts with key figures like Vannevar Bush and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox ultimately excluded the Navy and NRL from the Manhattan Project. Similar conflicts with William Sterling Parsons, Admiral Hyman Rickover, and others also prevented Bowen from being involved in post-war nuclear development. Although Bowen and NRL were excluded from the Manhattan Project, NRL’s work starting in 1939 on the thermal separation of uranium isotopes at the Philadelphia Navy Yard steam plant became part of the project to build the atomic bomb. The S-50 facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory was based on that concept as well.

One of Bowen’s duties during WW II was to seize and operate corporations for the federal government under Presidential executive orders. His and the Navy’s first World War II corporate seizure was a federal Shipbuilding and Drydock company in Kearny, New Jersey. The large shipyard had shut down due to a strike for the better part of August 1941, with no work being done on a $493 million contract. As the Navy’s Officer-in-charge, Bowen operated the yard for 134 days, meeting many of the originally scheduled deadlines. He returned the company back to the owners in early January 1942, after the strike was settled, Bowen would seize and operate a half dozen significant facilities during the war. 

Bowen married Edith Brownlie of Vallejo, California, in 1911. Their son, Harold Gardiner, Jr., also became a Vice Admiral known for his involvement in the inquiry into the USS Pueblo incident., during which North Korea captured the ship. 

Bowen was made special assistant to the undersecretary of the Navy, James V. Forrestal, who named him the first leader of the Office of Research and Invention, which later became the Office of Naval Research. He led R&D into nuclear propulsion, munitions, nuclear medicine, and nuclear science. Bowen retired on June 1, 1947, a week short of 46 years of service. He spent his final years in Cranston, Rhode Island, dying on August 1, 1965. 

Admiral Harold G. Bowen was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1992.

For additional reading:

  • Bowen, Harold G. The Edison Effect, Thomas Alva Edison Foundation, 1951. 
  • Bowen, Harold G. Ships, Machinery and Mossbacks: The Autobiography of a Naval Engineer, Princeton University Press, 1954. 
  • Ivan Amato, in “Pushing the Horizon,” a history of the Naval Research Laboratory, University of Michigan, 1998.
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