ORNEVILLE, Maine — The grave site of a 23-year-old World War II B-26 crew member from Milo who was killed in action over Europe on Dec. 6, 1944, when the aircraft was shot down has now been repaired, thanks to the efforts of many.
The government-issued tombstone to Lauren L. Cowallis located at a small cemetery on Lyford Road (Route 11) was formally rededicated during a ceremony at noon on Aug. 15.
“Post 41 has been putting flags on these cemeteries for years,” said American Legion Post 41 Adjutant and American Legion Department of Maine Second Vice Commander Richard Graves Sr. about the post’s work to honor veterans buried at area cemeteries. “We have a list of names, but really we didn’t know anything about the names — it is just something we did. Then along came a man named Mike Smith.”
Smith, the founder of www.b26.com, was contacted several years ago by Don Cote after Cote stopped by the cemetery after having driven by for a number of years. Cowallis’ tombstone caught Cote’s eye, inscribed with the words “Lauren L. Cowallis, son of Winifred French, 558 Bomb Squadron, 387 Bomb Group, Sept. 1 1921-Dec 6, 1944. Killed In Action.”
In November 2009, Cote searched online for Cowallis’ bomb group and squadron and found www.b26.com. Cowallis flew on a Martin B-26 Marauder.
Cote emailed the site, “I found the tombstone; photo attached, in a small graveyard in Orneville, Maine. I looked up the 558 Bomb Squadron and found b26.com. I thought you would like to know where one of your comrades is buried. I would also be very interested in knowing more about this young man.”
Trevor Allen, www.b26.com’s historian, answered with a brief description of what happened on Dec. 6, 1944, and included the names of the six crewmen. Of the six, only two survived and both were captured by the Germans. The war was over for this aircrew.
Smith looked up the two names of the surviving crewmen: John Dragan, waist gunner; and John Payne, tail gunner. Payne was listed with an address and phone number. One call was made. Payne knew Cowallis died because after jumping out of the spinning plane with his parachute open he watched the plane violently twist and spin down hard into the ground. He did not know what happened to Cowallis’ remains.
Smith then began a quest in the summer of 2011 to get Cowallis’ gravestone and site repaired. He spoke to Graves, who suggested Post 41 might partner with Smith on the project. Smith spoke to town leaders, legislators, bankers and others, and a fund was created for the strict purpose of repairing veterans’ graves in the Piscataquis County unorganized townships.
The Lauren L. Cowallis Veteran’s Grave Maintenance Fund raised the $750 needed. The repair, comprising work to the base of the structure, was completed by the Piscataquis Monument Co.
“This man is a perfect example of someone who talks the talk and walks the walk,” Graves said of Smith and his contributions to honoring veterans.
“It’s also opened doors for other repairs,” he added, referring to a bill in the Maine Legislature to make improvements to veterans’ grave sites across the state. “Hopefully all these stones will be fixed up and maintained this way.”
Taking to the podium next was Maine State Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, who provided greetings from both Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, and Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, who were unable to attend the Aug. 15 ceremony.
Raye thanked Post 41 for its efforts to helping to get the Cowallis grave site furbished, saying Cowallis was “a heroic B-26 crew member who made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf in WWII.” He said the story of the grave site includes two tracks: the post’s “selfless refurbishing of this site” and the state’s efforts to provide veterans with honorable final resting places.
LD 1630 directs the Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management’s Bureau of Maine Veterans’ Services to establish a stakeholder group for the development of a plan for the inventory and proper care of veterans’ graves in the state and to report to the joint standing committee of the Legislature having jurisdiction over veterans matters.
“During public hearings we heard about sites, some dating back to the American Revolution, in need of repair,” Raye said. He said the stakeholders group would “make sure veterans’ graves are properly taken care of, especially for those veterans who no longer have family.”
“I am pleased that we are taking this formal step. Every veteran deserves a final resting place that is honored,” Raye said, noting that behind the name of each stone are stories of “what they did and why they did it.”
He said a measure of a society is how its dead are honored. “My hope is that this legislation will help us do that.”
Raye said Maine has a strong military heritage and “we should never forget the obligation we owe to them, both in life and in death.”
Raye said Cowallis had a similar date of birth to his late father, Harry Raye, also a veteran of World War II. Raye said his father “came home and raised a family, something Lauren wasn’t able to do.”
In the final few years of his life the elder Raye began to share stories of his time in the military. “I never knew some of the things he went through,” Kevin Raye said. “He had friends like Lauren who never came home.”
Raye concluded his remarks for the Cowallis rededication by saying, “We thank God for his service and those who work to ensure this site will honor his memory.”
Several members of the Cowallis family were in attendance, including his cousin, Robert Cowallis; his wife Anna; son Brett; and Virginia Cowallis. Virginia Cowallis was the last member of the family to see Lauren, meeting him at a diner near the train station in Bangor before he flew across the Atlantic.
“This is an honor for the Cowallis family and Lauren,” Robert Cowallis said, thanking both Smith and Post 41 for all the work in fixing the grave site.
“We can’t thank you enough for showing up and for this honor,” he told those in attendance.
Post 41 Commander Terry Knowles then called everyone to attention for the rededication of the Cowallis grave site.
“We remember one of those who have fallen in the service of his country,” Knowles said. “We are inspired by this man who offered his life so justice, freedom and democracy might continue to guide us in America. His deeds remind us all of those who have made the supreme sacrifice. As they served America in time of war, yielding their last full measure of devotion, may we serve America in time of peace.”
Knowles said the site is rededicated to not only Cowallis, but to all of his fallen comrades. “With this I commit our American Legion Post 41 to the faithful service of our country and to the preservation of the memory of those who died so that liberty might live.”