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With passing of WWII veteran Bob Fowler, only one vet left from first Honor Flight in 2012

A folded flag sits on a casket during ceremonial funeral training at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Feb. 22, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Sadie Colbert/Released)

Robert Fowler had just graduated from Kern County Union High School, the campus that would later be known as Bakersfield High, when he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps at age 17. Nearly seven decades later, in 2012, he flew on the maiden voyage of Honor Flight Kern County and came home to Bakersfield a changed man.

World War II airman, working man, husband, father and friend, Fowler outlived many of those who loved him. He died Wednesday at the retirement community where he had lived for a number of years. He was 97.

“I was there with him,” said Fowler’s nephew, Don Fowler, himself a Vietnam War veteran.

“He died peacefully, and he died without pain,” the younger Fowler said. “I asked him if he was in any pain. He could hear me, and he indicated no.”

Attendants at the facility had pushed Fowler’s bed up against the wall in his room, and taped photos of Beverly, his late wife, to the wall next to the bed.

“On that last day, he was reaching toward the photos,” Don Fowler said. “He loved his wife. He missed her dearly.”

It was 1944, and the world war had been raging for years when Fowler and his classmates finally received their diplomas.

He was soon on his way to basic training like millions of other young Americans who served in the armed forces during World War II. After enduring weeks of boot camp in Biloxi, Miss. in the Deep South, the recruit eventually headed north to his duty station in Fairbanks, Alaska.

“I went to Alaska as part of a B-29 group,” he said in an interview last year.

Fowler was referring to the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, a four-engine, propeller-driven bomber that extended the strike range of American air power during the war.

As part of the ground crew, Fowler helped keep the planes in the air.

Walter Grainger, a Bakersfield resident who also graduated from Kern County Union with the class of ’44, joined the U.S. Navy after graduation. He said boys like he and Fowler didn’t have the luxury of slowly putting away childish things.

“You grow up quicker,” he said of serving during wartime.

After the war, Fowler married Beverly in 1949. They raised one adopted son, Ronnie Fowler. Ronnie died more than 20 years ago.

After the war, Robert Fowler went to work in maintenance and operations for the Kern High School District, where he labored for more than three decades.

“He was a painter, and eventually became a painter foreman,” said Don Fowler.

In 2012, the aging World War II veteran became one of just 21 vets to embark on Kern County’s first Honor Flight to the nation’s capital.

His death leaves only one surviving veteran from that flight.

“That’s when I first met Robert. I was his guardian on that first flight,” said Charlie Wilmot, a Vietnam combat veteran who has volunteered as guardian on a record 25 flights.

As an Honor Flight volunteer from the beginning, Wilmot has become friends with many of the men who had the Honor Flight experience. And he’s suffered the loss of many of those friends in the past decade.

“This one hurts a little bit more,” he said of Robert’s passing.

“It’s painful when any of our veterans pass away,” he said. “But Mr. Fowler, he was an 11-year relationship after that first flight.”

Robert’s wife, Beverly, his closest companion for 68 years, died in 2017. And Wilmot went through that loss with him.

Over the years, he could see his friend slowly decline.

“You know it’s coming, but it’s still a shock,” Wilmot said. “Man, we really didn’t sign up for this. It kind of slaps us upside the head as a group.”

It’s a double-edged sword, he said. The men and women on these flights are all getting on in years. And yet something in them is awakened on these trips.

Children and adults thank them in the streets. They receive letters and personalized cards from loved ones and strangers that express how proud they are of them.

“They are in tears during these experiences,” Wilmot said. “They never forget that. They talk about Honor Flight ’til the day they die.”

It changes their lives, he said. It changed Robert Fowler’s life.


(c) 2023 The Bakersfield Californian

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