You might say Bowdre McDowell served his country twice: the first time as a Navy code breaker in World War II, the second as a volunteer at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
The first time he was in his 20s, the second time in his 90s.
McDowell, 96, retired to The Claiborne in McComb last year. But his legacy at the museum remains prominent. A giant photo of him appears on a wall mural in the museum’s new Hall of Democracy. Photos of him have figured prominently in the museum’s advertising and promotion of events. Just search for his name on the Internet or youtube. Photos, videos and write-ups about him pop up all over the place.
“They all know him and they love him,” said his niece, Nancy Lazenby of McComb, who has visited the museum when McDowell was volunteering there. “He’s famous.”
Bowdre (BAU-dree) McDowell was born and raised in northeast Amite County and went to school at Mars Hill. His brother-in-law got him a job working at Lockheed Aircraft in California — until McDowell got his draft notice.
In January 1944 he joined the Navy and went to boot camp in Chicago, followed by Morse Code school at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and code-breaking school in Cheltenham, Md.
He took the Army transport ship Sea Fiddler to Honolulu, and stayed in Hawaii until the Japanese surrender.
“I never was in any battles or anything,” McDowell said.
His role as a code breaker was low-key but critical to fighting the war. Even now he won’t talk about it much.
“Code-breaking was secret,” McDowell said. “We just broke codes. I took two vows, when I went there and when I left.
“They say it’s declassified. Not everything’s declassified.”
After the war, he sailed to California on the USS Missouri and mustered out of the Navy in Louisiana on Easter Sunday 1946. He went to Copiah-Lincoln Community College and got a degree in marketing at Mississippi State University.
A lifelong bachelor, McDowell spent his career in sales — Baumer Foods, Pet Milk — and in providing workers compensation reports to businesses. During most of that time he lived on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans.
He sometimes visited the WWII museum, and one day a man saw him with his Navy cap on and asked him to consider speaking to a group of school kids visiting the museum.
“I had never done any speaking,” McDowell said. “They talked me into going.”
He wound up working as a volunteer greeter three days a week for five years. The job suited him perfectly.
“My love for WWII, one thing, and the meeting of people from worldwide,” McDowell explained.
His friendly, grandfatherly demeanor struck a chord with visitors and staff alike. His photo began appearing on museum advertisements, then in the Hall of Democracy, which opened last month.
“Bowdre McDowell’s on a 10-by-12-foot mural on the second floor, so I’ll be there a long time,” he said.
His name also appears on the museum’s honor roll of charter members.
In 2016, after serving his 1,000th hour at the museum, McDowell was named a Peoples Health Champion and honored at a New Orleans Saints game, where he received a trophy.
“What motivates Bowdre McDowell?” said a Peoples Health write-up. “What drives him to hop on the streetcar, get to the museum and work for free? He’ll tell you he does it out of loyalty and love of country. Deep down, what really pushes him is an irrepressible energy and a constant desire to see what comes next, to meet new people and to make friends out of strangers.
McDowell has a scrapbook full of photos and letters from friends he made from all over the world — like Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll, whose team sent McDowell a 95th birthday card.
When he got ready to move to McComb, the museum staff gave him a pillow autographed with their names.
A museum article on volunteers quoted this advice from McDowell: “Work hard, be truthful, go to church. Be good to everyone you know — and understand people, we’re not all alike. That way we’ll have a better country, a better world.”