05/30/04 — Remembering a fallen sailor

View Archive

Remembering a fallen sailor

By Sam Atkins
Published in News on May 30, 2004 9:19 AM

A 19-year-old sailor from Goldsboro embarked on his first battle in the U.S. Navy. He had only enlisted a few months prior and found himself aboard the U.S.S. Drexler in the Pacific Ocean during World War II.

Ray Edwin York was a gunnersmate on the destroyer. On May 28, 1945, three suicide planes attacked the Drexler and the U.S.S. Lowry.

Ray Edwin York

Ray Edwin York

The ships destroyed one of the planes and the second plane bypassed the Lowry and crashed into the Drexler. A gas fire ensued on the ship, but it kept firing at the third and final plane.

That plane also crashed into the Drexler, causing a tremendous explosion. The ship sank, and as a result, 158 people died and 52 were wounded. York was one of those killed.

Those walking through Willow Dale Cemetery may notice a small grave marker bearing York's name, date of birth and death, and that he was a sailor during the war.

Last year, York's marker grabbed the attention of Bob Keller of Goldsboro.

Keller says he has always been drawn to the cemeteries in Wayne County around Memorial Day and finds himself following the small American flags from one marker to the next. He was determined to find out more about what happened to the young sailor.

Keller recalled hearing York's name as a teen-ager during conversations of young veterans returning from the war. When he noticed that there was little information on his grave marker, he decided to look in the phone book to locate a relative.

He found York's brother, Charles, who told him the family had only been given the grave marker and a Purple Heart for York, but no other medals.

This surprised Keller and he decided to visit his friend, Wesley Grey Singleton, who is a retired U.S. Navy chief petty officer and a Pearl Harbor survivor aboard the U.S.S. Phoenix. Singleton has a lot of information about the history of U.S. Navy ships, he said. Using what information he gathered from the marker, Keller was able to find out more about York's first and final battle.

He then went to the Wayne County Veterans Office and visited with Brenda Forsythe, who sent forms requesting information on what medals York would be entitled to and a report of his death so he could obtain an American flag for the family.

After two letters and a year of trying to get what York earned, he received a package in the mail on May 10 from the Department of the Navy.

The package included a World War II Victory Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with Battle Star, American Campaign Medal, Honorable Service Button and a Purple Heart. With the casualty report, he also obtained a flag from a local funeral home.

Keller said he was so excited when the package came that his hands trembled for an hour just waiting for the moment when he could present them to Charles and his wife, Becky.

Charles, 82, spent three years in the Navy and also received the Purple Heart while aboard the U.S.S. California. York was the son of the late Charles Edgar York Sr., and the late Frances Strickland York, who was a librarian for many years at Goldsboro High School, said Keller.

Keller came by the Yorks' house Tuesday afternoon and they had no idea that he had the medals and flag. They were somewhat speechless as he brought the medals out of the boxes. Smiles and a sense of pride filled their faces.

"You have really put some work to this," said Mrs. York.

"Believe me, it's my pleasure," Keller responded.

Keller said the timing was fitting with this weekend being the dedication of the new World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. He said 34 U.S. ships were sunk by kamikaze attacks during the war and many more were damaged. Ten million Americans served in World War II, and 405,399 were killed or died of wounds.

"Those who survived are getting fewer by the day, and it's so important that we don't miss the opportunity to personally thank them for our freedom," he added.

Keller's next goal is to get another marker at York's grave with more details about York's last day on the Drexler. Perhaps it will include this poem, called "For the Fallen":

"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old; age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them."