Pasquotank County, NC
William "Bill" Charles Bowser Obituary
A PIONEER LAID TO REST: Groundbreaking surfman remembered
By BOB MONTGOMERY
Sunday, July 16, 2006
U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Stephen Rochon said he'll never forget the first time watching tears
fall down the face of William "Bill" Charles Bowser 10 years ago. It was during the playing of the
"Star-Spangled Banner" at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
Bowser was among the last surviving members of the Coast Guard's former all-black Pea Island
Lifesaving Station recognized for its earlier role in the historic 1896 E.S. Newman vessel rescue
of nine people during a treacherous storm.
Bowser, a surfman at Pea Island from 1935 to 1938, received the prestigious Gold Lifesaving
Medal in 1996 on behalf of that daring crew of 1896. The Pea Island station in Dare County was
decommissioned by the Coast Guard in 1947.
But it was a different type of heroism that was recognized Saturday. Family, friends and Coast
Guard members paid tribute at a memorial service Saturday for Bowser, 91, who died June 28
at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center nursing home in Decatur, Ga.
"He was treated so badly as a black man in those days (the 1930s) and said, 'I didn't think those
words included me,'" Rochon said he recalled Bowser saying after he cried during the national
anthem. "He was angry about the prejudices. Everybody was singing the words and the actions
were contrary. He displayed a lot of pain at that moment."
Last year, Bowser and Herbert Collins — the only two remaining survivors of the Pea Island
station — were honored last year during a Coast Guard ceremony at Elizabeth City State
University. Collins, 85, attended Bowser's service Saturday.
In recent years, Rochon and Bowser traveled around the country together to tell stories of the
historic Pea Island Lifesaving Station.
"Many of us in the Coast Guard feel he was the shoulders we stood on," said Rochon, 56, who
first met Bowser at that 1996 ceremony in Washington, D.C. "He went through rough times and
paved the way. I don't think I'd have gotten this far (to admiral) if it wasn't for him helping to break
down the barriers of prejudice."
On Saturday, Rochon recalled the second time he watched Bowser cry during the national
anthem. But this time, it was "tears of joy because all of you have destroyed 50 years of
bitterness from our hearts," Rochon recalled Bowser saying.
Rochon said Bowser had lived long enough to overcome bitterness from his earlier struggles as
a pioneering African-American breaking color barriers in the military.
Admiral Rochon, the Atlantic commander of the Coast Guard's Maintenance and Logistics
Command, was among several members of the Coast Guard that recognized one of their heroic
own who broke the color barrier in the 1930s and paved the way for other blacks, like Rochon,
to serve and rise in the Coast Guard's ranks.
The American flag was presented to Bowser's son, Charles Hopkins Bowser, and a 21-gun
salute followed by the playing of taps at a memorial service held in Cornerstone Missionary
Baptist Church in Elizabeth City.
While Bowser was remembered for his Coast Guard days, an even bigger tribute was paid to
him by his surviving family members and friends who shared numerous stories of kindness,
love and humanitarianism displayed by Bowser during his long life.
Saturday's storytelling was a bit ironic, speakers at the service said, because Bowser himself
was well-known for his storytelling ability.
"When I met him 42 years ago at the University of Illinois, my first impression was he is
outgoing, friendly, ready, intelligent and a very sharp dresser," his surviving wife Sheilah
Banks Bowser of Atlanta, Ga., said. "Through the years, that never changed."
He also had a penchant for honesty, she said.
"If you ever were brazen enough and wanted to hear the honest truth about something, Bill
would be the man to see," she said.
One time, after putting on pounds over a long period of time, she asked him if she looked
"He said you're not one of the biggest I've ever seen, but you're not one of the smallest," she
said to laughter.
His son Charles said he was able to achieve a dream of becoming a Navy pilot because of his
He said he was the second African-American to complete the Navy Test Pilot School.
"Because of him, I was able to do that," Bowser Jr. said.
Bowser was born June 27, 1915, on Roanoke Island and his family moved to Elizabeth City
when he was 6 after his father, William S. Bowser, was forced to retire early from the Coast
Guard due to an injury.
"Bill Charles" as he was known attended elementary school in Elizabeth City and high school
in Norfolk, Va., He graduated from Elizabeth City State Teachers College in 1955 and later
earned a master's degree in special education from Rider College in New Jersey.
He formerly taught at Pasquotank County Elementary School with his wife Elsie
Return to Pasquotank County Obituary Index Page
Return to Pasquotank County Page