Published by: Coastal Point
In October 1924, a series of explosions rocked the USS Trenton, which was docked in the harbor at Norfolk, Va. The heroic actions of longtime Bethany Beach resident and recent U.S. Naval Academy graduate Henry Clay Drexler that day saved the lives of many of the men aboard the Trenton, though he perished in one of the explosions. Drexler was posthumously awarded the Naval Cross and the Congressional Medal of Honor – the nation’s highest award for servicemen.
On Tuesday, nearly 87 years later, a memorial plaque will be dedicated in Bethany’s Loop Canal Park, to honor the local man who gave his life to save others.
But the road to a memorial wasn’t just a long one – it was very complicated, as well. That’s because the Congressional Medal of Honor is accredited by state, and Drexler’s medal had always been assigned to the state of his birth, Pennsylvania, according to Dick Carter, the chair of the Delaware Heritage Commission.
“I wrote a senate joint resolution last year, calling upon our congressional delegation to try and take action to have Drexler jointly accredited to both Delaware and Pennsylvania,” he said.
The resolution notes that, despite the accreditation of Drexler’s Medal of Honor to Pennsylvania, his actual medal of honor and other memorabilia, including his naval sword and dress hat, were given by the Drexler family to the Delaware State Museum in 1956, and are now on display at the Air Mobility Command Museum at Dover Air Force Base.
The story of the conflicting state assignment made its way to Margaret Young, a Bethany Beach Town Council member, who felt very strongly that Henry Clay Drexler deserved recognition from the town he called home while he was growing up, particularly given the Drexlers’ place as one of the town’s founding families. (In fact, the house that originally belonged to the Drexler family still stands, on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Campbell Place.)
“He definitely is a real-life hero, and for our town to have this is very unique,” said Young. “It’s very important, and it’s something we can be very proud of.”
Young championed the recognition by the town of Drexler and his elder brother, Louis Drexler Jr., who died in combat during World War II, and in June 2010, the Bethany Beach Town Council approved the resolution to honor the younger Drexler brother.
Young has been coming to Bethany Beach her entire life, and she and her husband became permanent residents in 1997. She has been heavily involved in efforts to preserve the town’s history.
“I know a lot about the early families,” she said.
In 1904, Young said, the Drexler family moved permanently to Bethany Beach. Louis Drexler Sr. would go on to be elected to the Delaware Senate and House of Representatives, as well as to the Bethany Beach Town Council. Both of his sons, Louis Drexler Jr. and Henry Clay Drexler, attended the U.S. Naval Academy.
While Henry Clay Drexler was killed just a few months after his graduation, Louis Drexler Jr. became a career Navy man, until his death as captain aboard the USS Mount McKinley during the attack on Okinawa, Japan, in 1944. Coincidentally, another ship lost during that attack was the USS Drexler, named for Henry Clay Drexler.
The only living direct descendent of the Drexler brothers is Louis Drexler Jr.’s youngest son, also named Henry Clay Drexler. He lives in Florida, and Young said he is supposed to make the trip up to Delaware next week to help dedicate his late uncle’s memorial.
Young said the ceremony is scheduled to take place at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, June 14 – Flag Day – and will include a musician and VFW members playing “Taps” and providing an honor guard. Several local officials are expected to attend, and the public is being encouraged to come, as well.
“It’s a very short ceremony,” Young noted, “not anything really elaborate.”
After the dedication, the plaque will be on display for all to see. And, according to Carter, it has been a long time coming.
“I’m glad to see that it’s happening,” he said. “And I think it’s a well-deserved recognition for these two heroic brothers.”