To the casual passer-by at the open market in the South Pacific’s Solomon Islands, it was one military trinket among many: a partially corroded dog tag, retrieved after decades buried beneath a nearby World War II battlefield, still showing the name of one Benjamin A. Cox, serial number 0-1304348.

Dan O’Sullivan, an Australian Navy veteran, with the dog tag he purchased in 2006 for $10. He pledged to track down the soldier’s family. Photo courtesy of Dan O’Sullivan

“For some reason – I don’t know why – I was drawn to it immediately,” recalled Dan O’Sullivan in a phone interview last week from his home in Canberra, Australia. “I picked it up and had a look at it, and the second I sort of held it I knew what I needed to do – try my very best to find its way home.”

That was in 2006. For the next 14 years, O’Sullivan, 45, himself a onetime corpsman with the Royal Australian Navy, would do everything he could think of to track down this mystery soldier’s family.

At times, it seemed hopeless. Emails to people with the surname Cox went unanswered, internet searches led nowhere and good information came in maddeningly incremental tidbits, if it came at all.

Then, on Feb. 14, an email from faraway Georgetown, Maine, appeared in O’Sullivan’s inbox. The sender was Eunice Cox, the wife of the late Peter Cox, known in these parts as the legendary co-founder of the Maine Times weekly newspaper.

Peter Cox, lo and behold, was Benjamin Cox’s nephew.

“The day that I received the email from Eunice, I just broke down in tears,” O’Sullivan said. “I said to Eunice: ‘I don’t know this man at all, but for the last 14 years, Ben has been a part of my life.’”

This is a story of persistence, military comradeship across generations and nationalities, and the power of social media. But most of all, it’s a story of how, even after three-quarters of a century, the legacy of a fallen soldier lives on.

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Ben Cox was born on March 20, 1916, to Jacob and Sarah Cox, both Russian immigrants, who lived on Parris Street in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood.

Benjamin A. Cox, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army from Portland’s Bayside neighborhood, died on a battlefield in the Solomon Islands in 1944. Photo courtesy of the Cox family

The fifth of six children, all but one of them boys, Ben headed off to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. In a family of high achievers – his brother Oscar went on to work in the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt – Ben was known as the “golden boy.”

With the outbreak of World War II, Ben returned home in April 1942 to enlist in the U.S. Army. He received a second lieutenant’s commission and shipped out to the South Pacific. Still a bachelor, he named older brother Oscar, who lived in Arlington, Virginia, as next of kin should harm come his way.

On March 20, 1944, his 28th birthday, Ben found himself in a pitched battle with the Japanese just outside the Solomon Islands capital of Honiara. In a letter to Oscar the following month, Maj. Gen. O.W. Griswold described what happened:

“Lieutenant Cox was in command of a reinforced platoon engaged in a counterattack against the enemy. Strong and stubborn resistance was met as his platoon advanced. He was hit by a mortar fragment and forced to take cover in view of intense rifle fire. A member of his Command was seriously wounded in an effort to aid him. Lieutenant Cox was seen to rise to his hands and knees when he was hit again by a burst of machine gun fire. He was killed instantly. …

“His Company Commander and the members of his platoon speak very highly of his cool, calm leadership in the face of the enemy. His loss was deeply regretted by his fellow-officers and men. He died a soldier’s death in the performance of his duties.”

News of Ben’s death reached as high as the desk of FDR himself, who wrote in a condolence letter to Ben’s mother: “I realize full well the grief that is in your mother heart as you mourn the loss of your loved and loving son, killed in defense of his country. I know that you have other sons to comfort you and I am happy to tell you that one of them, Oscar, is my trusted counselor and friend, a man of whom any mother may well be proud.”

Ben’s body was initially interred in an island cemetery and later returned home to the Mt. Sinai Cemetery in Portland. But one of his two dog tags – the location of the other is unknown – remained behind.

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An intensive care paramedic by profession and a military history buff by avocation, O’Sullivan went to the Solomon Islands in 2006 under contract with a medical services provider. He spent much of his down time visiting battlefields and museums in a region still haunted by the echoes of World War II. He also frequented the local bazaar.

Benjamin Cox, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army from Portland’s Bayside neighborhood, died on a battlefield in the Solomon Islands in 1944. His dog tag lay buried there for decades. It’s finally coming home. Photo courtesy of Dan O’Sullivan

“One day I was down there and came across this elderly gent who was selling some artifacts that he’d found around the place,” he said. “They were war artifacts – bits and pieces of war shrapnel or used ammunition rounds, lots of Coca-Cola bottles that they gave the American GIs during the war over there. And, of course some dog tags.”

He picked one up. It was Ben’s. He couldn’t put it back down.

“Where did you get this?” he asked the man.

“From one of the battlefields near Honiara,” the man replied in broken English.

O’Sullivan pulled out a $10 bill and handed it to the man. He wanted the dog tag not for himself, mind you, but for those Ben left behind.

“Being ex-military too, I know what it would mean to a family to have something so precious returned to them,” he said.

But who were they? Where were they? And how in the world might he find them?

In addition to Ben’s name and serial number, the tag contained the name of O.S. Cox and what was at the time Oscar’s address in Arlington, suggesting incorrectly that Ben might have been from Virginia.

O’Sullivan returned home to Australia, got on the internet and started searching.

“To be honest, I really couldn’t find out a lot of information,” he said. “It was very, very hard.”

He called the U.S. Embassy in Canberra, only to be told that the tag was U.S. property and he should turn it in immediately.

Seriously?

“There was no guarantee they were going to find its home, so I wasn’t happy in doing that,” O’Sullivan said.

Eventually he contacted the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C., and managed to obtain a certificate showing that 2nd Lt. Cox actually hailed from Cumberland County, Maine.

So, armed with that fresh lead, O’Sullivan began randomly emailing anyone he could find in Cumberland County with the surname Cox. Much to his disappointment, no one responded.

But he couldn’t give up. And the more he searched, keeping his wife and children abreast of his every move, the more 2nd Lt. Ben Cox, the iconic soldier from America who helped save the world from the Japanese, became a part of the O’Sullivan household by way of a simple piece of stamped metal.

Finally, a few weeks ago, it dawned on O’Sullivan that, just as Australia looks after its veterans, so must the United States. That prompted another “random email” to the Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services and its communications director, Melissa Willette.

“So, I started digging,” Willette said last week. She soon found a listing for Ben on findagrave.com, which showed not only his lichen-covered headstone at Mt. Sinai in Portland but also a grainy picture of a smiling Ben in uniform. She forwarded the link to O’Sullivan, who woke up one recent morning to find himself staring, at long last, at the face of 2nd Lt. Benjamin A. Cox.

His reaction?

“Yeah, to be honest, it was a really emotional time,” O’Sullivan said. “Finally, I had a face to put to the name.”

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Willette, smart woman, also took to Facebook with O’Sullivan’s inquiry.

“It just went viral from there. It was shared 300 times and seen by 30,000 people,” Willette said, adding that two local radio stations – WJBQ and WHOM – also began broadcasting appeals to help locate Ben’s survivors.

Someone along the way suggested Ben might be connected to the well-known Peter Cox, who died in 2004. That led to his obituary, which noted that Peter, the son of Ben’s brother Oscar, had served on the board of the Maine Community Foundation. (Full disclosure: my wife is the foundation’s communications director).

The foundation then caught wind of the search, connected Willette at the Bureau of Veterans’ Services with Peter’s widow, Eunice Cox, who in turn contacted O’Sullivan.

Eureka.

“It was so exciting,” Eunice said in a phone interview on Thursday. “And it was really touching.”

The emails – between members of Ben’s extended family, between Eunice and O’Sullivan – have been flying ever since.

The cartoon drawn by 2nd Lt. Benjamin A. Cox just weeks before he died Courtesy photo of Eunice Cox

O’Sullivan sent Eunice photos of the dog tag and other fruits of his labor; Eunice sent O’Sullivan a copy of a cartoon Ben drew for Peter’s older brother, Warren, just weeks before he died. It shows a soldier, clad only in helmet, boots, gun belt and a towel, striding with a cigarette in his mouth toward a nearby stream.

“This is my idea of my boys going down to the stream for a bath,” Ben wrote to his nephew in the margin. “The sad look is caused by the new order that every man will shave at least every other day. The pistol is always a good thing to carry in case the (enemy) should decide to use the stream at the same time. Give my regards to mother, Dad and Pete and write soon. Cheerio, Ben.”

In another letter to Oscar, Ben wrote: “Now for the most important thing if it is not rationed how about some Calumet or Clabber Girl baking powder. Out here every man is his own cook and the G.I. baking powder doesn’t work so well in pies or cakes. If you don’t think that I can make good pies or biscuits wait till I get back and will give a demonstration.”

But it was not to be. Instead, Ben’s name now appears on a plaque outside Portland City Hall listing the city’s 263 native sons who went off to World War II and never came home.

The easy plan would be for O’Sullivan to simply mail the dog tag to Maine. But he can’t.

“My greatest fear is that this tag has been lost for some 76 years now and for the last 14 of those years it has been my responsibility to keep it safe. It would break my heart to put them in the post to return to you and later find out that it never made it home,” he wrote in an email to Eunice on Friday.

Instead, he hopes to deliver the precious cargo himself. He’s started a gofundme campaign to raise money for the trip – as of Saturday, donations totaled $870.

At the same time, O’Sullivan has asked for Eunice’s blessing to hang the photo of Ben, blurry as it may be, in his home.

“My children are all grown up now, but they all know about Ben and the dog tag and WWII. They’ve grown up knowing at least his name,” he said. “He’ll always be a part of this household.”

When O’Sullivan eventually arrives here, in addition to safely handing the dog tag over to Eunice, he’ll visit Ben’s grave to pay his respects, one military veteran to another. On the headstone, just above Ben’s name, he’ll see an inscription in Hebrew that Eunice recently asked a friend to translate.

It identifies Ben as “Baruch (his Hebrew name), son of Jacob,” followed by the date of his death.

And just below that, it reads, “His soul shall be connected to the living.”

Bill Nemitz can be reached at [email protected]


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