Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Rest of Laura Besley's Story

                                         Staff Sgt. Laura Besley
                                        (Photo Credit: Find A Grave)

A few months ago I visited the Clarion County Historical Society during their Civil War Open House and noticed a small display in a corner of an upstairs room. Behind the glass were pictures and letters of a Clarion County woman, Laura Besley, who enlisted in the WACS during World War II and was killed in an airplane crash while serving in Guam. The thing that caught my interest was the fact that Laura Besley was a Shippenville native which is less than two miles from my home. I went home and Googled her name to find out more about Laura Besley. I quickly discovered that a book had been written about the plane crash and the two survivors of that crash. Laura was not one of the survivors, she died two days after the crash most likely from internal injuries. I purchased the book, Lost in Shangri-LA by Mitchell Zuckoff and downloaded it to my Kindle. It is a very well written book that focuses on the tale of survival and rescue of those who survived the plane crash. It did touch briefly on Laura Besley with some information on her background and the details of her death.

I became so interested in Laura's story that I called the director of the Clarion County Historical Society and found out that they were in possession of a box of Laura's things that the director had found in storage. When I spoke to the director she had just recently become aware of the book Lost in Shangri-La. I told her of my deep love of history and fascination with the story of Laura Besley. She said that she wanted to do something to recognize Laura and was going to try and find out more about Laura and her service in the WACS.

I frequently do genealogy research on my own just for fun and started researching more about Laura Besley. I found some information but assumed the Clarion County Historical Society had better resources than I do and figured they had all the information I uncovered. Last week on the front page of my local newspaper, The Oil City Derrick, was a picture of Laura Besley and a brief article about her. The article mentioned that the Clarion County Historical Society Director had wanted to prove that Laura Besley was the only woman from Clarion County to die in World War II. She contacted the Clarion County Director of Veteran's Affairs who said that records indicated Laura enlisted in Dauphin County and not Clarion County and that she could find no record of Laura Besley's burial.

While I was researching Laura's story a few months ago I asked some local people if there was anyone in the Shippenville area who would still be alive that might have known Laura Besley. I was given the name Blake Lewis and contacted him. Mr. Lewis is 94 years old and was very kind when I spoke to him. He could not specifically recall Laura but he remembered that her family lived next to the site of the present day Shippenville Post Office and that her father had a garage he ran. Mr. Lewis also recalled that when Laura died it was big news in the area. The Besley family (father Earl, mother Sue and daughter Laura) appear in both the 1920 and 1930 census records for Shippenville Borough. The 1940 census records for Shippenville are unavailable. I would like to note that Laura's legal name was Earline Laura Besley so she appears in some records as Earline L. Besley, E. Laura Besley and/or Laura E. Besley.

I did a check of the enlistment records for World War II veterans at the National Archives and Records Administration and discovered that Laura Besley listed Dauphin County as her county of residence when she enlisted in the Women's Army Corps in August 1942. You can view Laura's enlistment record online HERE. At the time of her enlistment Laura was employed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as a clerk-stenographer for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor in Harrisburg. Harrisburg is in Dauphin County and that is why Laura listed Dauphin County on her records, she was living and working there at the time. Laura was a native of Shippenville, Clarion County, who moved to Dauphin County for employment purposes and enlisted in the WACS there.

                Laura Besley's Grave Marker, National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific
When I read the book Lost In Shangri-La I discovered that Laura did not die quickly, it was two days after the  plane crash and she suffered. To add to the sadness of her story is the fact that she was not buried until nine years after her death. The area where the plane crashed was impossible for planes to land in and rescuing the two survivors took many months and was risky. Laura and the other victims bodies were left behind on the mountainside where the plane crashed. Nine years later the bodies were finally able to be recovered. The Clarion County Historical Society has papers from the Army informing Laura's mother that they could not recover her body and letters when they did recover the body. They also have papers where Laura's mother, Sue, gave the Army permission to bury Laura in Hawaii where she now rests.

I am puzzled by the statement that no record of Laura's burial could be found. If you check the US Department of Veteran's Affairs Graveside Locator Laura Besley's burial is listed including the cemetery and exact location of the burial. You can view the record at the Department of Veteran's Affairs HERE. She is buried right next to the Administration Building at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.  I also searched for Laura on the Find A Grave website and located her there. To view Laura's biography and cemetery marker go HERE.

If there is anyone who has more information about Laura Besley it would be great if they could share it. From all accounts she was a brave woman who enlisted in the WACS to serve our country and her fascinating story has gone untold for so many years.


  1. I am the director of the Clarion County Historical Society.

    I never said that I had no knowledge of where Earline Besley was buried. Included in our Earline Besley exhibit at the Sutton-Ditz Museum is a photo of her grave and letters about the grave site at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. This was pointed out to the reporter during the interview, and was written down.

    I also researched our military archives and discovered that Earline was the only woman to die in service from Clarion County during WWII.

    Again, this information was given at the interview.

    I, too, am very puzzled.....

    1. Hi. Mary Lea, thank you for answering. I think the problem lies with information from the Veteran's Affairs office and the newspaper article that was published. I meant no disrespect to the Historical Society I honestly felt that no one had information on Laura's burial and why she enlisted from Dauphin County and was trying to share it because Laura's story deserves to be told. I feel adamantly that she is from Clarion County regardless of what the military says.

    2. Oh Jackie, I didn't think you were being disrespectful to the Society!

      I was just very disappointed that the information I shared with the Derrick was not included in the article.

      Again, thank you for caring about Earline!

    3. Oh Jackie, I didn't think you were being disrespectful to the Society!

      I was just very disappointed that the information I shared with the Derrick was not included in the article.
      You are most welcome to see our complete collection of Earline Besley photographs and documents. Earlene was named after her father, Earl, and was from Shippenville, Pennsylvania.
      Again, thank you for caring about Earline!

  2. I shared this story with my sister. I'm not sure if she will be able to obtain any further information; however, it's worth a try :)

    I agree that Laura's story should be told :)

    1. I am in contact with the Director of the Historical Society and as it turns out they had information that was shared with the newspaper. However the newspaper never published the information for whatever reason. I plan on folowing up with the newspaper.

      If your sister can uncover any more information on Laura that would be great!