Marine's resolve places World War II Purple Heart in family's hands
By Mark Wineka
CHINA GROVE - Lynn White Polasit never knew her Uncle Olin. He lost his young life with 163 other crew members who went down with the USS Drexler May 28, 1945, just northwest of Okinawa.
Polasit wasn't even born yet. Still, in the shade of her carport Saturday afternoon, the tears and emotions swept in when Staff Sgt. Daniel Stoy of the U.S. Marine Corps presented her with a Purple Heart that had been awarded to Olin H. White 69 years earlier.
"There are no words to describe it," Lynn said.
The story behind this Purple Heart's finding its way back to family is one filled with mystery, sentiment and resolve.
Stoy, a three-time Purple Heart recipient from injuries he received in Iraq, furnished much of the resolve part of it.
The present-day part starts in Jacksonville, where a woman named Debera Allen found the Purple Heart in a forgotten box of memorabilia, except it was clear after she contacted everybody in her family that no one knew the name engraved on the back - Olin H. White.
Allen's calls to veterans organizations led her to the Military Order of the Purple Heart, which in turn connected her with John Cooney, adjutant for Beirut Chapter 642 in Jacksonville.
Allen handed over the Purple Heart to Cooney, who promised the chapter would do everything in its power to find a rightful owner for the medal.
When Cooney asked members of his chapter to take on the search, Stoy, sergeant at arms for the group and an active-duty Marine, volunteered for the job.
The worn Purple Heart box which held the medal contained an important clue.
On the back of a high school graduation card, on which someone had written "In loving memory," were the birth date for Olin Hughes White and the information that he died on the USS Drexler May 28, 1945, at 7:03 a.m.
It took Stoy two weeks to make the connection to Polasit, who lives in China Grove, four-and-a-half hours away from him.
The key break came when he found a Facebook page for a USS Drexler survivors' reunion. Through various emails and Facebook messages, he contacted Mike Smith, secretary for the Drexler survivors. There were 199 survivors that day in May 1945.
Stoy thinks a historian for the group tracked down a family connection to Olin White through information posted on ancestry.com.
Stoy's first call went to Sharon Fowler, Lynn's daughter-in-law, who lives in Belmont. Fowler connected Stoy with Polasit, and a 45-minute telephone conversation followed.
Polasit had a photograph of her uncle, who was one of her grandmother's 11 children. He was young and in his sailor's suit. She also had a later photograph of her grandmother sitting in a rocking chair at her home on Carolina Avenue in Wilmington. Behind her was a portrait of her late son, Olin.
That first telephone conversation between Stoy and Polasit was emotional for both of them. After he hung up, Stoy said, he sat at his computer and cried.
Polasit had no idea the Purple Heart existed. It had been awarded to Olin White in 1943 for injuries he received while serving as a yeoman on the USS MacKenzie. While the MacKenzie, a destroyer, was providing artillery support for troops landing on the coast of Sicily, it received fire from enemy planes.
Verl Matthews, commander for the Beirut Chapter of the MOPH, guessed that White was sent back to the States to recover and while there received his Purple Heart, or it was sent to his family's home.
Meanwhile, the USS Drexler destroyer was being built in Bath, Maine, and a fit White became part of its crew, fighting in the Pacific.
The destroyer was launched Sept. 3, 1944, commissioned on Nov. 14, 1944, and lost when hit by Japanese kamikaze planes the morning of May 28, 1945.
From memories of hearing her grandmother talk about Olin, Polasit thinks he may have been in the ship's radio room when the destroyer went down within 49 seconds after it was hit by a second kamikaze.
Olin White's body was never recovered. He was only 19.
How the Purple Heart ended up in Jacksonville, nobody knows. After her grandmother died, Polasit said, it could have been swept up in things sold or given away.
The writing on the card still inside the Purple Heart's box also was an amazing link to the past for Polasit.
"My grandmother wrote that, it's her handwriting - I know it," she said.
Stoy and Matthews wrapped Polasit in hugs at her carport Saturday afternoon.
"That is history, you're right, Polasit told them, holding the Purple Heart.
The medal itself, protected inside the box all these years, "is in really good shape," Matthews said.
Stoy, Matthews, Rosie Noel, Okla Spence and Neil Lathrop - all recipients of the Purple Heart - made the trek across the state Saturday to deliver Olin White's medal.
Their Beirut Chapter van had a flat tire near Raleigh which cost them an extra hour, but it seemed minor, they said, given the mission of their journey.
"How they found me is just an amazing process," Polasit said. "My brother said, 'Is this for real?'"
Stoy told Polasit, "This helps give you closure, it really does."Stoy, 34, plans to take a medical retirement from the Marine Corps Oct. 30 and move with his wife and three children to California, where he will have an instructional school for training law enforcement officers "how to shoot, move and communicate."
He told Polasit she has been invited to USS Drexler's survivors reunion later this fall in Providence, R.I.
Before Stoy left Saturday, Polasit went into her house and came back with a man's watch, a present to Stoy "for all his hard work," she said.
Stoy strapped on the watch immediately.
"It's an honor," he said. "He may not be a relative to me, but the connection is through that medal."
Polasit plans to find a place on her mantle for Uncle Olin's Purple Heart. She hopes it can pass down after she's gone to her children and grandchildren.
"I can't explain it, this is awesome," Polasit said.
Meanwhile, Stoy has traced down a family connection in Pennsylvania to another found Purple Heart.
A great surprise is waiting for someone.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or firstname.lastname@example.org.