For Kristin Brown, the history mystery began last October. She was combing Jewel Beach looking for ocean-weathered bits of frosted glass on the Kodiak, Alaska, strand. But what she found was far more unusual.
“I was looking for sea glass for some craft projects and stumbled across this dog tag that was practically buried in the sand,” she said in an email to Military Times.
The dog tag belonged to a sailor named Willard Leslie Richerson, who served aboard a cannery tender converted into a Navy patrol boat called the YP-73.
At the moment, however, Brown knew nothing about Richerson. Just that she found a long-lost relic from the past bearing his name.
“When I found this dog tag, I was completely shocked and excited at the same time,” said Brown. “I was so amazed to find such an amazing piece of history.”
Brown said she looked at the name on the dog tag and began to wonder how to reach the family of Richerson, who apparently lost it 78 years ago.
“My original thoughts were to find family members so I could give them this piece of history,” said Brown.
The wife of a Coastie stationed aboard U.S. Coast Guard Base Kodiak, Brown works for the child development center at the base.
But she may have a future running a detective agency.
Brown turned to Google, ultimately locating a “Find A Grave” link for Richerson. It didn’t have much information beyond his birthday — Aug. 14, 1922, the day he died — Jan. 27, 1999 and where he was buried — Johnson Cemetery, Whitehouse Forks, Baldwin County, Alabama.
It did, however, contain a link to a “Find A Grave” page for his widow, Gladys Olivia Wallace Richerson. This one contained the names of several relatives.
Armed with new names, she continued her search.
“I spent a few days/hours researching the internet for possible relatives,” she said. “I was determined to find someone.”
Brown said she found some names linked to Richerson, but didn’t know how to reach them. Not having a Facebook account didn’t help. So she enlisted her friend Michelle Uccardi to look up potential relatives on Facebook and send them messages that a friend had found their loved one’s long-lost dog tag.
Uccardi found several of those people on Facebook and left messages, including one to an Alabama woman named Dawn Johnson, Richerson’s granddaughter.
“Hi, sorry to bother you,” Uccardi wrote in November of 2019, “but by any chance do you have any relation to Willard Lessie Richerson? My best friend is stationed in Kodiak, Alaska and came across a dog tag with that person’s name on it. We have researched on the internet to try and find a family member to send it to."
Because the message came from someone she didn’t know, it languished unseen in Johnson’s inbox until March
“I was shocked, and couldn’t believe it,” Johnson said in an email to Military Times. “I contacted my dad and asked if Papa had been in Kodiak and he said yes. Then I told him and he was so excited.”
For a while, though, the excitement turned into a letdown. More than a month went by without a response from Uccardi.
“I had given up hope,” Johnson said.
As she waited, Johnson thought of her Papa. Willard Leslie Richerson enlisted in the Navy on July 27, 1942. He went to boot camp in San Diego. After boot camp, he was sent to Kodiak, Alaska, where he served on the YP-73.
When Richerson got out of the Navy, he came back home to a little community called White House Fork located in Bay Minette, Alabama. He went to work at Brookley Field as an aircraft electrician. They closed after 26 years and he transferred to Cherry Point, North Carolina, and retired four years later. He then went to work at Alabama State Docks in security and worked 10 years in that field. He was a father of seven; six boys and one girl.
Though the family didn’t even know the dog tag was missing until they received the Facebook message, they were now anxious to hold it in their hands.
Then, on May 9, Uccardi finally responded, saying her friend still had the dog tag and would be happy to send it to wherever it needed to go.
“Oh my gosh, yah!!!” Johnson replied. “My dad will be so happy.”
On May 16, an envelope with a letter and the dog tag arrived at Johnson’s home.
“My dad’s reaction was joyful, and tearful at the same time,” said Johnson. “He was so happy to receive this treasure, and amazed that it was there after all this time.” Johnson said her father, Terry Richerson, plans to frame the tag with the letter.
“To say my dad was excited in an understatement,” said Johnson. “So thankful that Kristin took the time to contact us. It means so much to him and we will forever be grateful.”
For her part, Brown, who found the lost memento, said she was happy to return it to the owner’s family.
“When they received the dog tag they sent me an email with pictures,” said Brown. “It made my heart very happy knowing I was able to give them that piece of family history.”
Besides, maybe it was kismet.
“Another fun fact,” said Brown. Richerson “shared the same birthday with my husband (Aug. 14).”
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.