It may be a small town, but it makes a big impression.

Six crewmembers of the USS Cowpens are back in the ship’s South Carolina namesake town this week, helping celebrate the 60th anniversary of the original Cowpens, a World War II light aircraft carrier nicknamed the Mighty Moo.

Every year, the tiny town of Cowpens — site of a crucial Revolutionary War battle in 1781 — hosts the Mighty Moo Festival, a weeklong celebration that started as a reunion for crewmembers who served on the original ship.

Over the years, the event has grown into the calendar’s biggest party for the 3,000 citizens of Cowpens, which lies in the state’s Piedmont area, about an hour south of Charlotte, N.C.

“This is my first time in Cowpens, and it has been absolutely amazing,” said Capt. Charles Dixon, the commanding officer of the current Cowpens.

“The ship used to send one or two people each year, but we sent more since this was the 60th anniversary and a kind of a payback for what the crew did during the war. We also want to be sure that the town understands our appreciation for them.”

Dixon was reached by cell phone as he and the members of his crew made their way to the Miss Cowpens Mighty Moo Beauty Pageant, where they would be judges.

“I’m going to let some of the junior members of the crew handle that one,” Dixon laughed. “I’ll just sit back and be an observer.”

Dixon said he has been amazed by the support the townspeople have shown the crew of the ship, especially during its deployment as part of the war in Iraq.

“When we were in the Gulf, we would get e-mails of support from the town and the middle-school kids would write letters that we would put up in the mess decks, to show the sailors that people were thinking of them,” he said.

“You can just tell by the tone of everything here, you can feel the patriotism and the strong support here, and it really means a lot to the crew. It’s been such a positive reception.”

For the residents of Cowpens, it does not matter that they will probably never meet most of the crew from the Yokosuka-based guided missile cruiser.

“Of course, it was the name that started the connection, but we are a very patriotic little town,” said Paulette Bridges, a longtime Cowpens resident and one of the volunteer organizers for the Mighty Moo festival.

“The connection with the crew has grown to where they have all become like part of our family. Many of them come back every year, and we keep in touch with the current crew by e-mail. For some of the old crew, this has become their annual summer vacation.

“We really do feel a strong tie with these men and women, some of whom have paid the ultimate price protecting us.”

According to organizers, the idea was born in the bicentennial year of 1976. A woman named Wilhelmina Dearybury, who then headed the town’s Bicentennial committee and is now the Cowpens historian, suggested a festival honoring the USS Cowpens (CVL-25).

The town took out ads in several newspaper looking for crewmembers of the Mighty Moo, which in 1945 was the first American aircraft carrier to enter Tokyo Bay at the conclusion of World War II and was on station when the Japanese surrender was signed aboard the USS Missouri.

The first Mighty Moo Festival took place in 1977, with only one former crewmember — a Charleston, S.C., man named O.J. Simpson — in attendance. Word spread, though, and by 1982, more than 100 former crewmembers attended the festival.

The festival has now morphed into the town’s signature event. The week includes a carnival, golf tournaments, baseball games between crewmembers and local Little Leaguers, and the beloved Mighty Moo Parade down Main Street.

On Saturday night after the parade, the festival culminates with a street dance at the Cowpens Depot.

“Everyone in town will be there,” said Bridges, also reached via cell phone as she struggled to find a parking space Thursday night at the beauty pageant.

For the crew, the week has been a taste of celebrity and appreciation.

“As soon as we were identified at the first event,” Dixon said, “we were surrounded by people who wanted to talk to us, to give us a little bit of the history of the town. The younger sailors have said this is the best experience they’ve had in the Navy by far.”

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now