‘He could’ve just thrown it away’: Military plaque found in the sand by RI man returns home to NY

Street Stories

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — An East Providence man determined to return a military plaque to its rightful owner has successfully done just that.

Justin Bourassa discovered the plaque five years ago while searching the Crescent Park shoreline for treasure with his trusty metal detector.

The plaque is dedicated to John T. O’Brien and describes him as “the greatest and toughest Marine to ever live.”

“I was in complete shock,” Bourassa recalled. “When it first came out I didn’t know what it was. It was just a square piece of metal.”

After discovering the plaque, he made it his mission to find O’Brien’s family so he could return it.

“What’s under the ground can tell a story, so with John T. O’Brien, I feel the plaque is part of his story and it really deserves to be told,” Bourassa added.

The plaque didn’t end up making it back to O’Brien’s family, but Bourassa did give it to a military group the former Marine helped form back in 1946.

After hearing Bourassa’s story, Volker Heyde, a retired Marine and member of the Sgt. Angel Mendez Detachment 246, made the six-hour drive from New York to meet him and retrieve the plaque.

Heyde said O’Brien was one of three Marines who founded the organization.

“It’s a mystery how his plaque got here,” Heyde said. “It fits perfectly on a memorial bench. If it came off of a boat, the boat would have to sink out here. This [was] in the water for a long time.”

O’Brien, according to Heyde, was a decorated World War II veteran who was severely wounded in 1943. He later became a lawyer and a New York police inspector before passing away in 2010.

Heyde said he’s grateful Bourassa recognized the historical importance of the plaque.

“He found it. He could have just thrown it away,” Heyde said. “He knew it was important and I applaud him for that.”

Bourassa said he’s relieved the plaque will finally be where it belongs.

“It’s going home and that makes me happy,” he said.

Bourassa didn’t leave his meeting with Heyde empty-handed. Heyde gifted him a Challenge Coin in honor of his persistence to return the plaque to its rightful owner.

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