Vet’s final mission: Preserve memory of fallen soldier

08/05/2010 12:00 AM |

The monument that marks the grave of P.F.C. Arnold Phillips in Riverhead Cemetery.

Riverhead native and World War II veteran Richard Beckwith visited Washington, D.C., last October through the Honor Flight Network, a nonprofit group that flies former soldiers to the nation’s capital at no cost.

After some time reflecting at the World War II Memorial, the U.S. Navy veteran scanned the monument’s computer database for a friend who was killed in the war, Pfc. Arnold Phillips.

The name wasn’t there.

“That made me angry,” Mr. Beckwith said.

His childhood pal, a Marine from Riverside, was 18 when he was killed in action on Sept. 15, 1944, his first and only day of battle.

Mr. Beckwith recalled fondly how he and Arnold, the youngest son of 10 children, could be seen around town in the 1930s and ’40s trying to make an honest buck any way they could.

“We both were out making money, picking up junk; nobody had any money,” said the 83-year-old Navy veteran, now living in Venice, Fla.

After months of research and persistence, Mr. Beckwith has now ensured his friend’s life and sacrifice will not be overlooked.

This year — almost 65 years after Arnold Phillips was killed by Japanese troops in the South Pacific — his name was entered in the country’s World War II Registry of Remembrance. Mr. Beckwith received a letter confirming as much in April.

“I fought like the devil to get that thing,” he said. “It’s not very easy when you don’t know the ropes.”

According to Mr. Beckwith, in 1943, at age 17, Pfc. Phillips decided that enlisting in the U.S. Marines would be the best way to improve his station in life and serve his country. His mother signed for him because of his young age.

“Everybody we knew went into the service,” Mr. Beckwith said.

The young Marine was killed the day he and his fellow troops first landed on Peleliu Island. His body was returned home and was buried in the Riverhead cemetery, where a marble tombstone marks his grave in the northwest corner of the property.

Locating his final resting place took some serious, and at times frustrating, legwork on the part of Mr. Beckwith, who started his research as soon as he got home from his Washington, D.C., trip.

He learned that only names submitted by a friend or family member are in the World War II registry, and all but two of the Phillips children are dead.

Mr. Beckwith didn’t know Arnold Phillips’ birth date, enlistment date or any other information, so finding the data necessary to register him presented several hurdles.

He eventually contacted Mr. Phillips’ two surviving sisters, but neither had any documents on hand. Mr. Phillips’ older sister, Sally Thompson, now 89 and still living in Riverside, was able to get a copy of her brother’s birth certificate with the help of a retired Riverhead lawyer, Pierre Lundberg.

Ms. Thompson remembered her youngest brother as “good-natured and happy” and said at the time it was a shame his name wasn’t in the registry, especially since a Bronze Star medal for meritorious service was stolen from his gravestone several years ago.

“Arnold liked the Marines and that is what he did,” she told a reporter.

Mr. Beckwith was also able to find some documents through Riverhead Free Library, including a photograph of Pfc. Phillips’ gravestone. (He was never able to locate a photo of his friend.) He sent the required paperwork in December and hoped for the best.

Some four months later, he received the letter certifying Pfc. Phillips’ entry into the World War II Registry of Remembrance.

Officials with the National World War II Memorial could not say how many people are listed in the registry at the monument, which was unveiled in 2004.

Today Mr. Phillips’ name can be found on the online database in Washington or on the website, in addition to his decorative headstone at the Pulaski Street graveyard.

For Mr. Beckwith, who is in failing health, that’s a welcome relief, as he had made it his duty to make sure his friend’s name was registered before his own life comes to an end.

“It made my day,” he said.

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