Retired Marine tracks down family to return Purple Heart found in pawn shop

HOUSTON – It was at the Wright Pawn and Jewelry Shop where a life-changing moment happened.

One retired Marine happened upon a Purple Heart belonging to a Houstonian who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the Battle off Samar in World War II.

He did his research, and months later, he was able to reunite the medal with the sailor's family.

A new mission for a retired Marine

Jerry Patterson, a World War II enthusiast and retired Marine, has a hobby of looking around the Wright Pawn and Jewelry shop in west Houston. In early 2018, the shop acquired the Purple Heart in an estate sale, hoping to prevent the honor from being passed around, and with hopes to reunite the Purple Heart with the sailor's family. Patterson was determined to do the work to make it happen and started on his journey to search for the medal recipient's family.

"Purple Heart medals frequently have a name of the recipient on the backside ... this one did," Patterson said. "[The name was] Chelakis, Electrician's Mate 3rd Class Forrest Chelakis."

The retired Marine knew his next mission was about to begin.

"All over Houston there are boxes with old medals that somebody soon to pass may know the story, and that story needs to be passed down," Patterson said. "Now (Chelakis) is an unusual name. So I looked him up and saw that he was killed in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Battle off Samar on Oct. 25, 1944, and that he was from Houston, and I thought, 'Maybe there is someone who is still living in Houston that would like this.'"

A precious moment: Holding a hero's heart

After months of painstaking research and getting to know more about this once stranger's story, Patterson found himself sharing the sailor's story with Cody Chelakis, the great-nephew of Forrest Chelakis, to whom the medal belonged.

"Nice to meet you," Patterson said to Cody Chelakis, who came to the Wright Pawn and Jewelry shop to receive the Purple Heart Thursday.

"This is your great-uncle's Purple Heart," he said.

Patterson handed Cody Chelakis the medal. Cody Chelakis held his great-uncle's Purple Heart in his hands, silent, and began to cry.

"He risked his life for (us) ... to protect all of us," Cody Chelakis said in tears. "It means a lot to me and my family because nobody else in my family knows about this."

Patterson began to share with Cody Chelakis other medals that his great-uncle earned and also filled him in on the history of the sacrifice his family member made.

"I'm so thankful for this," Cody Chelakis said. "I'm so proud of my family and who we have become."

He said he would share his story for generations to come.

The fierce Battle of Leyte Gulf

Forrest Chelakis was involved in an engagement off the East Coast of the Philippines, the Battle off Samar. More specifically, Forrest Chelakis was involved in the largest naval battle in World War II, The Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Forrest Chelakis made the ultimate sacrifice. It was the morning of Oct. 25, 1944, when the Destroyer USS Hoel and other U.S. Navy warships were engaged in a fierce battle of survival against greater firepower and numerically superior elements of Japanese Navy task force.

Of 253 men, only 86 survived.

The purpose of the destroyer ships was to protect the aircraft laden escort carriers. It was the USS Hoel's and the other U.S. destroyers' 5-inch guns against the 14-inch guns of an already numerically superior Japanese naval force. American sailors on the destroyers were forced to strike from a very vulnerably close distance to make impact.

"The destroyers at that time had a range that was far less than that of the Japanese cruisers and battleships, but notwithstanding, they continued to fight till they sank," Patterson said. "It was practically a suicide mission, and they knew that, but they fought to the end."

Forrest Chelakis' remains are likely in the Philippines along with many others' whose remains were never found. However, the Purple Heart gave comfort to the Chelakis family, who did not know a lot about this history.

"I can't wait to share it with our family," Cody Chelakis said.

Sharing stories for generations

Patterson and Cody Chelakis are on a mission to keep these heroes' memories alive.

"Definitely, his story will be shared because my kids, when I have kids, they're going to know where we came from, how proud how I am of my family and they're going to be proud of who they are too," Cody Chelakis said.

Patterson said he wants to encourage people who have veteran loved ones to continue to share these precious medals and the stories behind them for generations to come.

"All over Houston, there are boxes with old medals that somebody soon to pass may know the story, and that story needs to be passed down," Patterson said.