Powell’s military legacy preserved by family members

Published 6:13 pm Friday, December 23, 2022

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By Linda Dudik

Last of a series

On August 23, 1994, Congress designated December 7 as National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.

By then, 53 years had passed since the attack in Hawaii. Members of the United States military who had then been young men and women, were, in 1994, in their 70’s, if not older.

The PHSA (Pearl Harbor Survivors Association) search for the grave of William Jeremiah Powell in the Costen Cemetery took place one week after the passage of the Remembrance Day legislation. That legislation asked communities across the country each December to “Remember Pearl Harbor,” a phrase used during World War II to motivate the war effort at home and overseas. With World War II so far behind us now, the phrase takes on new meaning. The principal one is to remember the lives lost that day.

For Powell, there was never a danger that he and his actions on December 7, 1941 would be forgotten in his small, Gates County, NC community. His relatives, who have deep roots in Gates County, still live there as their families had in the 19th and 20th centuries. Nieces, nephews, and cousins, even ones who have moved away, know William’s story of military service and heroism during two of the most famous hours in American history. The older generation has passed down William’s story to the younger generations.

The preceding two articles in this series place William’s story in a historical context. During this author’s research, two senior members of his family shared aspects of their uncle’s life. In so doing, they personalized a life that, before their involvement, had been one based merely on books and documents. One of the relatives is his niece, Brenda Powell Costen. She has photographs of William when he was young, when he served in the Navy, and some from the 1996 burial service. Brenda also has hanging in a hallway of her home a picture of the USS Curtiss, a testament to how much she still thinks of her uncle on a regular basis, not just on December 7, Remembrance Day.

Another relative who helped shape this story is William’s nephew, James C. Powell. He once contacted the Navy, asking for information on his uncle. It mailed him copies of several documents, including William’s enlistment papers. Additionally, James knew the government had sent his grandparents a Purple Heart medal. With the help of a few members of Congress, James received eight additional medals that William would have been given if he had lived. James mounted them in a shadowbox and presented them to the T.S. Cooper Elementary School in Sunbury. In the 1930s, it had operated as a high school, the one William and his siblings had attended. In that one generous act, the Powells and the Costens ensured that younger generations not related to their family would know William Jeremiah Powell’s story. He would be remembered, and his story will not be lost to history.