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Athol’s Nowlin receives hero’s welcome

Staff Writer
Published: 10/18/2019 9:55:22 PM
Modified: 10/18/2019 9:55:09 PM

ATHOL – Roger Nowlin, 94, was given a hero’s welcome on the streets of Washington, D.C. last month. Nowlin along with about 50 other military veterans who served during World War II and the Korean War were transported on a commercial flight from Boston’s Logan Airport to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, then bused to Washington, D.C. as part of a complimentary trip provided by Honor Flight New England.

HFNE founder Joe Byron, who is retired from law enforcement, said he was investigating crimes against service members when he met a WWII veteran who was living with survivor’s guilt. Byron had heard about the non-profit Honor Flight organization that is “dedicated to providing veterans with honor and closure,” and in 2009, started the “flight hub” for New England, based in Hooksett, NH.

“It’s their opportunity to really talk about their horrific experiences,” Byron said. “They talk about funny stuff but never really go down and deep. Many will tell their story for the first time.”

He said they keep the trip “very light. They deal with so many emotions.”

Byron said since 2009, HFNE has made 57 flights, flown 2,083 “heroes,” including 80 women, 39 Prisoners of War (P.O.W.s), 23 sets of brothers, eight husband and wife couples, a veteran who forged his birth certificate to enlist at 14 ½ years old, and a 103 year-old.

Nowlin, who lives in Athol, actively served in the United States from 1943 to 1945, and was a navigator on a B17. He received a notice about the Honor Flight and submitted an application. Nowlin took the Sept. 22 trip that started before dawn, accompanied by his daughter, Lynn Major of Fitchburg.

Once the travelers arrived in Washington D.C., they did some sightseeing of monuments and places of interest. “We were put on a bus tour as an honor to us and it was an honor for me to tour the sites of D.C.,” Nowlin said. “I have to thank the D.C. police. They provided two escorts, one patrol car, and one motorcycle. They blocked every intersection that we crossed in our tour.”

He said not only did they block the intersections so they could get through, “we got a green light even if the light was red.” Nowlin’s son John, who lives in nearby Falls Church, Va., said without a police escort, they wouldn’t have been able to see all the monuments and sites that they did.

“Along the route, the streets were lined with people, citizens of D.C., all cheering the busload of veterans, mile after mile,” Nowlin said. “It was a surprise and certainly an honor to have them wave and cheer us. It was essentially elbow to elbow, a complete surprise.”

Byron said, “the whole day is a surprise.” HFNE prearranges the people to line the streets to greet the veterans. “They just love to shake the hand of a true hero.” There is an “incredible” amount of family support too, he said. “We call it an Honor Flight ‘family,’ not a ‘team.’”

After a “full” day, the group flew back to Logan, arriving at 2 a.m. Nowlin said the trip was “very special.” The veterans brought home mementos including HFNE jackets and shirts, and a “challenge coin” with the HFNE insignia. Challenge coins are given by most military units, Byron said. Nowlin has another challenge coin he received during a Washington D.C. trip in 2015 from Sgt. Major Bryan B. Battaglia, the Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “He’s the one to bring the humility to the generals and admirals and such,” Nowlin explained.

Born in Concordia, Missouri, Nowlin said he began his service at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas when it was still Indian territory. He was then stationed at an Army Air base in Tampa, Florida. “When the hostility in Europe came to an end, we were transferred to MacDill Army Air Base (in Florida) to start training on B29s,” he said. “We spent a day training on a B29 and my Missouri friend, President Truman, okayed the bombs to be dropped on Japan. When they surrendered we were not shipped to the Pacific.”

As a navigator on the B17 nicknamed “Silver Bullet,” Nowlin sat portside below the pilot who “could look between his rudder pedals and see me right at his feet.” The pilot, “Mac” MacKorell, “was not only my pilot, he was a very, very good friend,” and instructed Nowlin how to fly the plane, take off and land. MacKorell told him that piloting a plane was “like sitting on a front porch and flying a house.”

Nowlin said MacKorell was “highly intelligent. His admonition to me was, ‘if I’m wounded, you’re sitting in the pilot’s seat. I don’t want you to let me die.’”

He said during his time in the service he met “a lot of great guys, a couple not so great.” He also didn’t see any hostility. “For us it was peaceful service.”

After the his time with the B29s, Nowlin went into the reserves traveling, and “spending all my time in the service going from one school to another. The Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) kept me from getting killed.” This training, when he was a cadet, took place at the University of Nebraska. “We weren’t enlisted men or officers,” he said. “We were in between.”

Nowlin said some of them were sent to medical training to become doctors because “they expected the war to go on for years and years.” The university taught science courses such as aeronautics, mechanical engineering, physics and chemistry. “After that they would determine where you were best suited.”

Because Nowlin’s eyesight was 20/10, meaning he could see 20 feet where someone with “normal” vision would have to move closer, he was told he had good vision for a navigator “because you can see the ground, rivers, railroad tracks, mountains, this, that and the other.”

He was sent to Santa Ana, Calif. in a three-decker troop train with coal-fired engines. “We went from Lincoln, Nebraska, south along the border of Mexico. It was hot. We would open the old troop train windows and the wind coming in would keep us cool, but the soot kept us dirty.”

At Santa Ana, Nowlin trained on land navigation practicing star locations, marking distances with lines that would cross, resembling an asterisk. He said it was “fairly easy, though on an airplane it’s a little more difficult getting a fix on a star.”

He traveled to Las Vegas one August for aerial gunnery training. Living in the hot climates, he said, “you could never get enough fluids in you – it just evaporated. People arrived with bottles of water. We drank almost a quart every hour or so. It was even hot flying.”

In 1950 was working for General Electric as an engineer inspecting nuclear turbines on submarines. Nowlin said he never traveled in any of the submarines, and was sent by GE to different facilities worldwide to qualify the steel forging and steel casting, visiting England, France, Spain, Germany, Romania, Italy, Korea, Japan and other places.

Nowlin received a certificate from HFNE “in recognition and appreciation for your service to our country.” Through HFNE he has received more than a dozen cards from people and children throughout the country thanking him for his service. “I have to answer all of them to thank them for taking the time to write,” he said. Messages of appreciation came in all forms: “a brave hero, an honored veteran,” “with respect, honor and gratitude,” “to someone who answered our country’s call,” “I’m thinking of you with pride.” He has also been invited to an Honor Flight reunion on Nov. 10 in New Hampshire.

Byron said, “it used to be we would lose 1,000 of the World War II veterans a day, now we’re losing 400 a day.” He continues to do outreach to veteran’s organizations and senior citizens to find veterans so they can be honored through the Honor Flight experience. “We’re in a race against time to get them there,” he said.

Nowlin still cuts his own firewood and digs his own garden. When he thinks back at all of his travels as a veteran, he said, “you didn’t plan your life in the service. The service was planned for you.”

For more information about Honor Flight New England, call Joe Byron at 603-518-5368, email, or visit The “100% privately-funded” organization accepts donations. Applications can be made online or mailed to: Honor Flight New England, P.O. Box 16287, Hooksett, NH, 03106.

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