For nearly two decades, Lieutenant Colonel William “Bill” McCowen served his country as an Air Force Pilot, but he gave a lot more of his time than that.
McCowen “officially” flew 697 U.S. Combat Missions, something that no one else has ever done. In 1952, he survived a catastrophic aircraft crash where, as a passenger, he was thrown through the forward nose window of a crash-landing B-29, and propelled 200 feet from where the crumpled fuselage ended its journey.
In Vietnam, the daring pilot chose flying over his toenails, because the medicine to heal the fungus and save his nails would have grounded him from his mission responsibilities.
Being on the ground in Italy during WWII and later facing the challenges of low-flying bombing missions in Korea, transporting troops and supplies in Vietnam and during the Cuban missile crisis, and being tasked with the possibility of delivering nuclear warheads directly to Moscow, only one thing could end McCowen’s Air Force career.
“It was 1969,” recalls the now 91 years “young” McCowen, “and these three colonels from the Pentagon came to Hurlburt to discuss a promotion of sorts. There was a violent uprising in South Africa, and they requested I lead a mission to squelch the rebellion. It would mean a promotion to full colonel and a position at the Pentagon after the mission.”
After a short pause, “Well, when I discussed it with Beverly (his wife of 64 years), her answer was short and to the point. ‘Bill, you have survived three wars, that’s enough. You are not going anywhere!’ That’s when my civilian life started.”
The country lost a war hero, but our community gained a hero neighbor. A member of the Niceville First United Methodist Church, McCowen led bible study at his home, volunteered with a local prison ministry, and mentored young, underprivileged urban children from New York in a program called Fresh Air Kids. And those are just a few examples of the things McCowen did in his daily strive to “just do the right thing.”
He also fostered several successful businesses that brought jobs and homes to our community. As a realtor and homebuilder, he moved the first family into Bluewater Bay and built over 500 homes on the Emerald Coast. McCowen also opened the first Oil and Lube east of the Mississippi River at Mary Esther Cut-Off, and still gives away oil changes to the Crispy Warriors and charitable groups in our area. He created an international electronics company and a manufacturing group that supplied Walmart and Disney with goods, and now he is part of a group working on an alternate energy source.
These endeavors have brought hundreds of jobs to our area over the past five decades, along with international recognition for the Panhandle.
“Dad is a wellspring of inspiration and encouragement,” says Clint McCowen, the youngest of Bill’s three sons. “And yet, when you speak of his accomplishments, he will almost always say, ‘Ah, I didn’t do anything special.’”
We and thousands of Beachcomber readers would disagree with you, Lt. Col. McCowen. You are a very special hero to our community and our country.
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