Last Wednesday morning, an hour and a half after the sun rose over Falmouth, John W. Cowley of Rose Morin Lane, stood in front of a flagpole directly outside the US Coast Guard administration building in Woods Hole.
“Brrrrr,” Coast Guard Commander Carissa April said, as she walked from the building and stood alongside Mr. Cowley, their right arms placed behind their back while Electrician’s Mate Third Class Michael McGhee faced the flagpole. A minute later Mr. McGhee began hoisting the American flag up—“Keep going,” Mr. Cowley instructed when the cool autumn breeze halted the flag’s progress momentarily—taking part in the morning ritual with fellow servicemen around the world.
When the flag reached its final resting point for the day atop the pole overlooking Little Harbor, the trio took a moment to salute it before Mr. Cowley uttered his appreciation for the Stars and Stripes: “Beautiful,” he said.
In and of itself, there was nothing remarkable about the moment. But it takes on a larger significance when one realizes that for the last two decades, every Monday through Friday, the 88-year-old Mr. Cowley has participated in the ceremony known as “morning colors” at the Woods Hole Coast Guard station.
He has not let inclement weather, such as Hurricane Sandy three weeks ago, get in the way of his efforts to pay tribute to the flag.
His dedication has been rewarded with a small plaque engraved on a rock not far from where he stands at 0800 hours five days a week. “This flagpole is dedicated to Jack Cowley, USCG AUX for his selfless and zealous service to group Woods Hole,” it reads.
As to why he displays such devotion even at his age, one has to go back to World War II when Mr. Cowley served as a US Marine in the Pacific theater where he was involved in the Battle of Guadalcanal. “I can remember many marines while they were fighting would pull out a pin of the American flag on their jacket and look at it,” he said. For some it was one of the last images they saw before they died.
The Flag's Meaning
When asked what the flag means to him, Mr. Cowley answered that “it is this whole country. It is all the people doing their every day work flipping pancakes or building airplanes or going through boot camp in the military or fighting in wars. It means all of these things.”
[The flag] is this whole country. It is all the people doing their every day work flipping pancakes or building airplanes or going through boot camp in the military or fighting in wars. It means all of these things.
WWII Veteran John Cowley
And so he has taken time to honor those people in his morning ritual as a member of the Coast Guard’s auxiliary staff.
To him it is a privilege to do so. “It is just so thrilling standing at colors,” he said. “It is as if I’m the only one in the world doing this when in fact I know there are millions of people doing the same thing at 0800 hours aboard ships or in ports like this... It is a ritual. Everyone does it, but some do it with feeling, while others do it because they are supposed to. Most do it with a feeling of reverence to the flag.”
To the outside world, Mr. Cowley’s actions go largely unrecognized, although there have been times—such as in 1999 during the Coast Guard’s search and rescue efforts for John F. Kennedy Jr. after his airplane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard—when motorists and pedestrians have paused to reflect upon the morning and evening ceremonies.
It is Mr. Cowley’s goal that one day this type of attention will be afforded the raising and lowering of the flag on a daily basis. “In Boston at 0800 hours they announce it with a cannon shot from the USS Constitution,” he said. “It is grand.”
“I remember when I was stationed in Washington, DC, at sunset you could hear the bugler playing from the Marine Corps barracks as they were doing evening colors,” Commander April said.
“One of the things I’ve been trying to get is for them to install a sound system so that people standing and overlooking the road can join in the morning and evening colors,” Mr. Cowley said.
The same respect that Mr. Cowley gives to the flag is given to him by his peers at the Coast Guard station in Woods Hole. He is welcomed freely inside the wardroom, reserved solely for Coast Guard officers, often joining them for lunch. There a framed black and white photo of Mr. Cowley, dressed in his military uniform, hangs on one wall. It is from 1941 during his days as a marine. On it in black marker is written the words “Semper Fi.”
“You are a US Marine until you die,” Mr. Cowley said at one point during the interview.
Duty To His Country
A native of Quincy, Mr. Cowley joined the military, as many did during that time, because he believed it was his duty.
After serving his country for seven years, he moved to Wrentham where he spent 37 years as a police officer. In addition to his duties as a patrolman, he said, he helped train tracking dogs for police departments throughout New England.
He retired in 1989 before bringing his boat down to Fiddler’s Cove in Woods Hole, deciding to settle here permanently as a resident. At that time, he began his affiliation with the Woods Hole Coast Guard station. He has served as a volunteer member of the Coast Guard civilian auxiliary branch since 1986.
Because of his age, these days he is limited to serving as “coxswain of the computer,” assigning orders for fellow volunteers from the confines of a small office with windows that look out onto the station’s flagpole. “I have a job to do and I do it,” he explained as to why he continues in this role. “I’m doing it effectively and it does help the Coast Guard. But part of me thinks the Coast Guard is helping me to survive by giving me a purpose in being here.”
Of all his duties, he admitted it is his role in honoring the flag that gives him the most pride. “Just looking out there and seeing the flag flying on the [Coast Guard cutter] Hammerhead, even as we’re sitting here talking, it is just a beautiful sight,” he said.
His commitment, Commander April said, helps serve as an example for her and her fellow Coast Guardsmen. “You know, it reminds us of the history and importance of the flag and observing the colors,” she said. “Jack keeps us honest and constantly reminds us that it is important to honor the flag. His sense of commitment and dedication is really special to us.”