Wilbur Fay Nowell

1893 - 1970


Their Story

Not much is recorded of Wilbur Fay Nowell’s early life. He was born on November 19th, 1893, to a Mr. and Mrs. Stephan Nowell in Quincy, Illinois. He was raised in Northern Wisconsin, and at some point, learned to play an instrument. Nowell primarily entered onto the historical scene on April 17th, 1917, when he enlisted with the United States Navy. Given that he  spent the majority of his life in Wisconsin, and the Great Lakes Naval Station being listed as his site of discharge, it is likely that Nowell was trained at and deployed from the Great Lakes Naval Training Station.[1]

Much like the rest of the Navy, the Navy Band benefited from a recruiting swell after the United States entered the First World War. The Great Lakes Naval Station grew from 1,500 to 15,000 sailors, with its band growing in kind.[2] The famous composer and conductor John Philip Sousa was appointed Director of Music at the Great Lakes Naval Station to handle the growth of the Navy Band, a task he accomplished with resounding success:

The Navy’s confidence in Sousa paid off as young musicians rushed to enlist and learn under him in the recruit training band. Sousa reorganized the existing bands into smaller groups that could still carry out duties on ships and Naval stations. Meanwhile, he formed a large band of 350 musicians that he used to tour in major cities. These tours would be used to support Liberty Loan bonds, the Red Cross, Navy relief and recruiting. The tours were massively successful and raised over 21 million dollars for the war effort.[3]

Nowell’s obituary recounts that he served aboard ship, so it is likely that he was not a member of the famed “Bluejacket Band” that Sousa toured with stateside. Instead, it is likely that Nowell served in the more traditional role of a ship musician, performing ceremonial roles seen from the founding of the Navy to today.

Musicians perform on one or more designated instruments to provide ceremonial and entertainment services afloat and ashore to enhance Navy presence and coalition building initiatives, support Navy recruiting goals and objectives, inspire patriotism, elevate esprit de corps, enhance retention and pride in the naval service, enhance community awareness and public relations, and provide services that project a positive United States and Navy image both at home and abroad.[4]

US Navy Band

The importance of such morale boosting efforts are tremendous, both for the military and the civilian populace. Nowell was responsible for ensuring that his fellow sailors kept a high morale through the power of inspiring music. On shore stations, the motivation to serve that resonated throughout the stirring music of Nowell’s band would inspire more men to serve or convince wealthy Americans to contribute to the war effort through bonds and donations. Though not as recognizably impactful as the martial might of warships or naval guns, the Navy Band was a powerful weapon in the United States’ World War I arsenal.

After the War’s end in 1918, Nowell received his honorable discharge from the Navy on August 20th, 1919, at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. He moved to Kenosha, Wisconsin shortly afterward, and then to Chicago, Illinois in 1922. He would spend the rest of his life in Chicago, raising his son W. Eugene Nowell there. He passed away at his home on January 8th, 1970, after a short illness. He was survived by his son, and five grandchildren.[5] Wilbur Fay Nowell’s service leaves a legacy that showcases the power of military music and musicians to unite and guide a nation to victory.


[1] “Wilbur F. Nowell,” Kenosha News, January 9, 1970, p. 14,

[2] “History,” Navy Band Great Lakes, November 8, 2019,

[3] “Early Navy Music,” United States Navy Band, accessed June 16, 2022,

[4] “Navy Musician,” Navy CyberSpace, August 28, 2018,

[5] “Wilbur F. Nowell,” Kenosha News, January 9, 1970, p. 14,