“Lest ye forget”: Local author wants to spread veterans’ stories to high schools
A local man visited VFWs across Indiana and the Pearl Harbor monument in Hawaii and gathered stories from the people who were there when it happened--now, he wants to ensure that the next generation has access to those stories.
Jimmy Lee Beasley, Sr. is currently tennis coach at WRV, where his son serves as Middle School Principal.
Beasley, began his writing career as a sports writer for the Daily Clintonian and went on to work at the Tribune-Star, after which he became interested in radio. By 1999, he was a full-time writer, and considers himself a WWII historian.
His first book, “Sometimes You Can’t Hide” was published in 2009, and focuses on the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and mentions the USS Indianapolis.
“It starts as a fictional story to get you there, but all the war stories are true and about people I met when I was there,” said Beasley.
He began writing stories for the Library of Congress, which led to him writing his second book, “I Was There When It Happened” in 2010.
“This is my latest book, and I’m really proud of this,” said Beasley. “There are 55 stories in here of people who served in WWII and I started at the Clinton VFW and went all the way down to Bloomington.”
In addition to the sources of the stories being veterans, the stories also had a phrase in common at the end of each veteran’s story: Lest we forget.
“They didn’t want to be famous, they didn’t want to make money. They just wanted people to know what happened and didn’t want--we don’t want this to happen again, is what they wanted. We’ve got to stop this.”
Among the 55 stories is a love story in the form of letters, provided to Beasley by a man who owned a jewelry shop and movie story in Clinton before he passed away, but flew a B-26 Widow Maker during WWII and wrote his wife every day. Their story is the second one. The book begins with a darker story, however, from Beasley’s lifelong friend Herman Riley. Riley, also from Clinton, went to Okinawa as a Navy Seal and details the losing half his crew by the time they reached from submarine to shore. While mapping the west side of the island to prepare for the invasion, he walks upon the site of a mass suicide of Japanese women and their babies. During WWII, Japanese propaganda encouraged civilians to voluntarily commit suicide to evade capture by American soldiers, who--civilians were told--would surely rape the women and kill their children.
Beasley wrote the book in three months so that Riley could read it before he passed away. Beasley spoke at his funeral and, not knowing quite what to say, decided to tell Riley’s story.
“To tell his story, and look over and see his family bawling... I had family members come up to me and say, ‘I did not know that about dad--I never heard about the babies’,” said Beasley.
The stories veterans told to Beasley, a perfect stranger, were rarely told to their own families. Beasley says that all the veterans featured in “I Was There” have all passed away. According to statistics from the US Department of Veterans Affairs, only 558,000 of the 16 million who served in WWII are alive in 2017, with 362 dying each day.
Beasley had taken a similar approach to writing his first book, “Sometimes You Can’t Hide”, as he did for his latest book. To collect stories about Pearl Harbor, he visited the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument for two weeks, where he spent every day talking to people. The second to last day at the monument, he met a man and a women--one of whom told Beasley that his or her brother was a survivor from the USS Arizona. They informed Beasley that anyone who has served on the Arizona can be cremated and interred on the ship upon death. This is the only period of time the ship is closed to the public. They told Beasley that if he wrote about ‘Mike’, he would be allowed to attend his service on the ship the next day.
“They brought in an aircraft carrier, everyone on that carrier in dress uniform--they shot the cannons... it was the most touching thing I ever saw. I did that when my daughter was in Iraq,” said Beasley.
Both of Beasley’s children, Jimmy Beasley, Jr. and Justine (Beasley) Clark enlisted after the September 11 attacks. Justine was medically discharged after 13 years of service and Jimmy, still active, is 17 years in.
“One thing I learned during this--here in America, and in the world, children fight our battles,” said Beasley. “When my son was overseas, it didn’t bother me. When my daughter went...”
Beasley and Justine traveled to Camp Atterbury on her day of deployment. He recalls eating, and Justine was wearing her street clothes, when they heard the announcement for parents, spouses and family members to go to Building B while Justine and others were asked to get dressed and ready to leave.
“You go into this building and there’s all kind of clergy, funeral guys--you have to make arrangements,” Beasley said. “Parents go, ‘Oh, but if I do that they’ll die for sure’, but you have to do that. And they said ‘We won’t do like WWII, you won’t get a telegram. We will send an officer and a clergy of your faith’--so if you see a government car pull up into your yard, that’s what’s happening.”
One day, Beasley says he looked out his window in time to see a government vehicle roll into his driveway. Before the woman reached the door, he was in tears--but she revealed herself as belonging to the INS and asking for the whereabouts of a person Beasley did not know.
“I said, ‘Don’t you see the flag in the window with the two stars? Don’t ever knock on my door,” said Beasley, who says the woman apologized profusely.
Two days later, he received a call that his daughter had to be life-lined to Baghdad with appendicitis. The next day, the convoy she usually drove was blown up. Thirteen years later, Justine was shot in Iraq and ‘medicaled out’.
“The thing is, we treat our soldiers so bad in this country for a land of plenty,” said Beasley. “The first thing they do if you’re disabled, to where you can’t work or anything, they kick you out so they don’t have to pay you. If you cannot work, and you defended our country, we should take care of you the rest of your life, no questions asked--but we don’t.”
Justine’s husband, Justin, is still active and has 21 years into his service. The couple met in Iraq and got married once they returned home. Justine is currently a branch manager at Fifth Third Bank while Justin works for Frontier Cable. Beasley says his daughter is still working on disability benefits.
Beasley says his son has signed up to serve for six more years, and is slated for a nine-month-long deployment come Aug. 4. Due to preparations for deployment, Beasley said Jimmy could only be at WRV for nine days in the fall on account of preparations.
“The [WRV] school board was excellent when he told them, and they were proud of him. They knew that when they hired him--they knew he wasn’t going to give up his commission or anything,” said Beasley.
One of Beasley’s favorite part of “I Was There” is the picture section, because Beasley says, “You can see that they were kids.”
“I can’t remember who told me, but it’s at the front of one of the books--’If you lose your parents, you lose your past. If you lose your children, you lose your future and your generation’. And that has stuck with me more than anything that I’ve ever read,” said Beasley.
Things that were given to Beasley by his interviewees--such as a battle flag from Okinawa--can be viewed at the Veterans Memorial Museum on Wabash Ave. in Terre Haute.
Both of Beasley’s books feature poems by Richard Maher, formerly of Maher Construction in Terre Haute. Maher, Beasley’s son’s grandfather-in-law, passed away in July 2014.
The books are $35 and $45, but Beasley says he would be willing to donate copies to school libraries to ensure that students can have access to these stories. The books are currently available in the library at WRV. They are also carried by the Barnes & Noble Bookstore in Terre Haute.
“Thirty-five, forty-five dollars is a lot for a high school, but if they want one donated they can contact me; and if there’s a senior center or community center that has a library, and would like to have copies, I can do paper backs for them,” said Beasley.
Although Beasley says this is his ‘busy week’, be is willing to speak for groups and organizations at no charge. So far, he has talked to history classes in Sullivan, South Vermillion, Rockville, Turkey Run and other high schools. For copies of his books, or to ask about a speaking engagement, Beasley invites people to drop by WRV or to text him at (812) 236-9017.
“You look at it now, this is not a part of their history. Kids in school now, none of them [were around for 9/11],” said Beasley. Every single person in here--Lest we forget--so it doesn’t happen again.”
One of the main things Beasley has taken away from the stories is the resilience of our country and the unity of the people in it, no matter how divided we may seem at times.
“You can say what you want about us, you can say how we fight with each other--we don’t like this president, we don’t like this candidate, but don’t kick us.”
If the stories combined represent courage, then the closing of each story--Lest we forget--represents wisdom.
“I feel like they’ve entrusted their story to me,” said Beasley. “One thing about America, everybody has a story. Everybody. It may be good, may be sad, may be bad, but everybody has a story. And people want to be remembered, but something like this--it’s not that. They want to be remembered in a way that you don’t forget it, that I don’t forget it. These are stories with sad endings. There are some funny stories in there. There are some crazy stories. There are some awfully sad stories in there--but they are stories that meant something to them at that time, and they felt confidence enough in me to let me be their caretaker.”