A surprising find in an abandoned storage unit, coupled with exhaustive detective work by a local pastor, has led to a memorial plaque for a seaman killed during World War II being presented to a surviving family member.
“He was a Navy guy like me,” Dr. David Sparks of Flat Rock Pentecostal Holiness Church said this week of Sykes Lee Beasley, who died when a series of explosions rocked the USS Turner, a destroyer, in January 1944.
It was customary during the war for memorial plaques to be issued to families of service personnel killed in action. In the case of Beasley, who was from Ararat, Va., a certificate bearing the signature of then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt was issued in recognition of his sacrifice.
The framed document found its way to Beasley’s family, but in subsequent years became one of history’s mysteries.
“It just got passed around over 60 years,” Sparks said.
Eventually, the memorial plaque wound up in a storage locker in Pilot Mountain. As fate would have it, the contents of the unit were put up for sale due to non-payment of the rental fee.
That’s where Sparks entered the picture, after Richard Chappell, a Burke Road resident who attends Sparks’ church, attended the sale and “bought the whole locker full.” After going through the contents, Chappell discovered the long-lost plaque.
“When he saw that, he said ‘man, this is not one of those things that gets casually put aside,’” said Sparks, who does not know how the item found its way into storage. There is speculation that the plaque possibly got passed down from Beasley’s parents, and was lumped in with other possessions after its last holder died.
But after Chappell found the item, Sparks recognized its significance. “He took it to church and showed it to me, and I knew it was something that was super-special.”
That led the pastor to undertake the mission of trying to reunite the plaque with Beasley’s family, which began about two months ago.
Sparks did research on the Internet as well as relied on word of mouth to try to locate any living relatives of the dead seaman. “I was determined I was going to find out,” said Sparks, who was partly motivated by a sense of camaraderie since another Navy man was involved. Sparks was in that branch of service for four years during the Vietnam War.
One of his efforts was speaking at a meeting of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars to inform members of the discovery and see if anyone could shed light on Beasley’s family. After learning that his home community was Ararat, Va., the pastor also contacted people with the Beasley surname in Patrick County as well as Surry County, but to no avail.
Sparks did find out that Beasley’s name is listed on a monument at the old courthouse in Stuart which honors Patrick County service personnel killed during World War II.
He even enlisted the aid of Tom Bishop, a Patrick County historian, in the quest. “Tom really went to bat,” recalled Sparks, who got the impression that his mission was striking a chord among those he contacted. The general sentiment was “his (Beasley’s) family at least deserved to know about this.”
A breakthrough finally came when an older VFW member, who doesn’t attend the group’s meetings too often, provided information that led Sparks to Polly Cox, a resident of Mount Airy’s Cross Creek area.
As it turned out, she is a surviving niece of Sykes Lee Beasley, and said she and her two sisters were unaware that such a memorial plaque existed.
Cox recalled Thursday that the seaman was one of five children of Robert “Bob” Beasley and Polly Justin Beasley, who lived on a farm just across the state line on Highway 104.
Though the USS Turner sank nearly 70 years ago, Cox’s memories of that occasion remain vivid.
“I was 9 years old when my mom got the word,” she said of Beasley’s death. “It was on the radio that night that the USS Turner had been sabotaged in New York Harbor, and we knew that Sykes was on that ship,” which had been to Europe and was returning to the fleet headquarters.
Its sinking claimed the lives of 123 crewmen and 15 officers, according to Dr. Sparks’ research, which also revealed that the incident marked the first time a helicopter was used in a rescue operation, to pick up survivors.
“Sykes’ body was never found,” said Cox, who remembers that her uncle was a barber by trade who had worked in West Virginia before entering the Navy. “He was clean-cut, just a great guy, and he and my mom were really close.”
The Mount Airy woman also remembers the last time Beasley came home, which included a visit to his sister, Cox’s mom, Mary Lena Beasley King. She resided on Oakdale Street at the time.
“In fact, he left without permission to come home,” said Cox, who believes this might have happened for a reason — given the circumstances that would unfold in New York Harbor. “He had a premonition, I suppose.”
Beasley’s death was devastating to his family, especially his father.
“That was the downfall of my grandfather,” Cox recalled Thursday.
She earlier had told Sparks: “When Uncle Sykes was reported killed in action, it just took the life out of my poor grandfather. He was never the same after that. We always felt that losing dear Sykes shortened Granddad’s life.”
But when Cox recently received the memorial plaque from Sparks, an important memento of Beasley’s wartime contribution was provided.
“In grateful memory of Mr. Sykes Lee Beasley, who died in the service of his country at sea, Atlantic area, 3 January 1944. He stands in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared to die that freedom might live, and grow, and increase its blessings. Freedom lives, and through it he lives — in a way that humbles the undertakings of most men.”
“It will be shared with my sisters and cousins,” Cox said of the document, which she plans to have copied and distributed to the other relatives.
“Someone had it and didn’t realize it belonged to someone else,” she added of the many years that passed before the memorial plaque’s discovery.
Sparks’ research reveals that Cox, Mrs. William (Frankie) Caudle, Mrs. Jim (Erline) Miller, Mrs. Bobby (Nancy) Combs of Cana, Va., and Mrs. Bill (Ruth) Barber of San Antonio, Texas, are the last-surviving members of Beasley’s generation.
“It was a great load of responsibility which was lifted after we were able to complete the long journey of the special certificate back to its rightful owners,” Sparks described of his search.
In addition to working to have the plaque returned to the seaman’s family, the pastor’s brother, Titus, recently photographed Beasley’s name listed on a wall of remembrance at the Veterans Memorial Museum in Branson, Mo. The former Navy man said that is the only location he knows of where the names of all Americans who died in World War II (more than 400,000) are listed.
Cox indicated that the memorial plaque will remain a cherished possession of family members.
“It was just a piece of the past that has been meant for us to have,” she said Thursday of the special gift provided by Dr. David Sparks.
“We’re grateful to him for researching it and being able to put it in our hands.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.