Vet's quest

Navy veteran seeking stories of Americans buried overseas

Cox NewspapersMay 24, 2014 

This is one of the odder efforts that's crossed my path in recent months and this guy's chances of significant success seem small.

But I get it, I think, and, with Memorial Day approaching, it might be something you want to get involved in.

Here's part of the email that Michael Beach sends to newspapers:

"I am searching for as many of the stories of the 218,000 soldiers, within the 24 cemeteries, who are buried overseas, as I can find. I started working on Oklahoma, my home state, but have decided to try and find as many as I can due to the lack of time available."

The "lack of time" actually is the passage of time and the fading of memories about Americans whose stories are worth telling and remembering.

Back in 2009, Beach, the 45-year-old owner of a heating and air conditioning business in Maysville, Okla., went to the U.S. cemetery at Normandy in France. Beach is a vet: Navy 1987-90, no combat duty. He's done volunteer work for vets.

"I was walking around and I saw all the different states," Beach told me. "I saw an Oklahoma headstone and it was one of those wow moments. Here's this guy, buried halfway around the world."

Beach had some Oklahoma rose rocks, the state rock, with him and left one on Dan Austin's grave.

The American Battle Monuments Commission database (abmc.gov) tells us that Pvt. Dan Austin of Oklahoma served in the Army's 30th Infantry Division, was awarded the Purple Heart, died on July 17, 1944, and is buried on Row 12 at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France. Beach wants to know more.

"You just stand there and you look at it and your gut just wrenches up full of emotion and everything," he said.

"How many of these guys have never been visited by family members? Somebody has got to do it," he said. Beach has sort of made himself that somebody, visiting 20 U.S. overseas cemeteries in England, one in North Africa and one in the Philippines.

"I don't know any of these guys," he said.

But maybe you do. If so, Beach wants to hear from you.

So far, the numbers are unimpressive and offer a hint of the challenge Beach has undertaken. There are about 3,000 Oklahomans in the cemeteries. He's collected stories of about 50 of them. Check out his website: apieceofhomeusa.com.

Beach has a goal in mind: "As many as possible." And here's what he's looking for: "Just anything they have, pictures, letters, family stories." He's found newspaper obituaries for many, but those can be impersonal.

"What I'm searching for are the stories that only the aunt knows or maybe only the sister knows about this guy; some little goofy things about him, what he liked to do, what were his interests and stuff like that," he said.

Beach hit paydirt with a World War II Indiana veteran by tracking down somebody who knew him.

"This guy has nobody that is directly related to him at all. She is the only person in the whole world who knows anything about him," he said. "They grew up across the street from each other and planned to marry.

"They were going to get married when he came back and he never did," Beach said.

Federal law allows survivors to choose to have their deceased loved ones buried in overseas U.S. cemeteries. Think about the final scene in "Saving Private Ryan." Beach is thinking about vets buried overseas who've earned, but perhaps never have had, moments like that.

There's nothing official about this project, it's just one man's odd quest. The American Battle Monuments Commission database includes 8,531 Texans, from sailor Norman Aaron to soldier Arthur Zybach.

If you know anything about any of these folks and care to share their stories, contact Beach via apieceofhomeusa.com.

Ken Herman, Austin American-Statesman; kherman@statesman.com.

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