Dick Cowell was 18 and the war was in full swing when he enlisted in the Marine Corps and was handed a uniform, the rifle and some bullets.
The firearm, his sergeant told him, was now his girlfriend, his wife and his friend. He had to take it everywhere with him, he was told. And he should never, ever call it a gun - unless he wanted to stand naked in front of his company. It was a mistake he only made once.
This Veterans Day, the old Marine is reconnecting with the dented, scratched rifle that became his third arm during the war. Today, it’s a historic relic that is bringing his family closer.
“It’s my baby,” Cowell said of the rifle. “I am very appreciative that Richard was able to find it after 73 years.”
Richard Cowell, left, of Tequesta heard stories about his dad’s World War II rifle growing up in Palm Beach, where his dad Dick Cowell, 90, still lives. Richard Cowell, left, and his father Dick, with the rifle and his military portrait. (Photo: Melanie Bell / Palm Beach Daily News)
Cowell comes from a family of military men. His father served in World War I and great-grandfather fought in the Battle of Bull Run during the Civil War. While Cowell’s 46-year-old son, Richard, didn’t serve, he did become the family historian and works to honor his father’s legacy, not just on Veterans Day but every day.
“He has so many stories,” Richard said about his dad. “I wanted this one to be recorded.”
Richard, who lives in Tequesta, spent six months hunting down the rifle after finding a white piece of paper with the word “Springfield” written in cursive followed by the serial number “3594593” in his father’s desk.
“It didn’t matter the cost. The rifle was a piece of history and it is part of him,” Richard said. “I was going to buy it even if I had to mortgage the house.”
He spent “a pretty penny” buying the rifle, he said, but declined to reveal the price. “It’s not about the money,” Richard said.
He found the rifle on gunbroker.com, an eBay-type website for guns. A New Jersey gun collector was selling it, and after Richard outbid a tough competitor, the firearm was his.
“The rifle spent two weeks in my room before I gave it to my father,” Richard said. “I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I couldn’t believe it was finally ours.”
In late October, Cowell’s 11-year-old grandson, Tommy, presented him with the rifle. Holding the dark-brown wooden firearm, which weighs nearly 11 pounds, Cowell was flooded with memories of his first day of target practice.
“When I first fired this weapon, I tell you, it was something else,” Cowell said with a grin.
Target practice back then meant sitting in a trench as white-papered targets with black bull’s-eyes were raised above the shooters, he recalled. Cowell, who earned two Sharpshooter medals, recounted that his sergeant would shout, “All ready on the right. All ready on the left. Watch your targets. This is 16 rounds.”
Dick Cowell earned the highest medals for excellence in marksmanship. (Photo: Melanie Bell / Palm Beach Daily News)
And, then the Marines would open fire.
“(Finding) this rifle opened up an entirely new life for this family,” Richard said, looking at his dad. “My father has remembered things from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s that we’ve never heard before.”
One of those: Walking down Fifth Avenue in New York City after the war ended. Cowell got emotional as he described the large crowds lining the streets, the band’s loud music and the president waiting at the Plaza Hotel.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
Now the rifle, which is believed to have been used in the Korean and Vietnam wars, sits in Cowell’s office. He uses the firearm to teach his son and grandson about a different time.
“It’s been such a bonding thing for all of them,” said Erin Cowell, Richard’s wife.
“Every little boy loves a solider. And for Tommy, his grandpa is his soldier.”