Tuskegee Airman to finally get full military honors years after his death


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Edwin T. Cowan was a B-25 pilot with more than 500 hours flight time.

Photo courtesy of Philip Arnold

The late Edwin T. Cowan was one of the original legendary Tuskegee Airmen — black pilots and crew who proved their bravery, tenacity and heroism during World War II.

I’ve covered Tuskegee Airmen stories through the years, but had never met Cowan. His daughter, Leslie Cowan, said her father “was a proud and strong man, but very private.”

Cowan was a B-25 pilot with more than 500 hours flight time. He earned a master’s degree and was qualified to fly multi-engine aircraft, but an airline would not keep the light-skinned Cowan as a pilot when they learned he had been a part of the all-black unit. So, Cowan became a teacher and principal at Columbia Elementary School in Cleveland, Ohio, and worked as a postman.

When Cowan died in 2009, his cremains and the cremains of his wife Theda, who died two years earlier, were buried at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church Cemetery on Merritt Island. There were no markers on their gravesite.

Merritt Island resident Ray Norman, who retired from the Army Reserve after 23 years, and other veterans decided to do something after they learned of the unmarked gravesite and that Cowan was buried without the military honors he deserved.

In 2006, Tuskegee Airmen were honored with the Congressional Gold Medal for their heroic acts during World War II. They had suffered discrimination even as they served in the military.

As a Tuskegee Airman, Cowan was among the first of 994 black pilots and crew trained as part of the 99th Fighter Squadron, the 322nd Fighter Group and the 447th Medium Bombardment Group. Some doubted that training blacks as pilots would be a successful endeavor. However, they proved to be among the best pilots during World War II.

Cowan completed his training shortly before the war ended, but he did not get to serve in combat as a pilot.

“He was a proud patriot who willingly served his country without the benefit of civil rights,” said Philip Arnold, Cowan’s son-in-law and an Air Force veteran.

While attending an event on Merritt Island, Norman saw a photo of Cowan and was struck by his piercing eyes.

“He seemed like he was looking at me,” Norman said. “It’s like he said, ‘Norman, I dare you to rectify an omission,’ ” he said.

To hear Norman tell the story, you would know right away that it has become a mission to honor a military veteran who did not get that tribute at the time of his death. He at first aimed to get a marker or tombstone on Cowan’s grave.

Soon, veterans Chip Hanson and Bill Kowalczyk joined Norman in the effort to get Cowan and his wife buried at the Cape Canaveral National Cemetery with military honors.

The process is in motion and the interment at the national cemetery will take place in the coming weeks. Several veterans groups are expected to attend the graveside ceremony. A date has not yet been announced.