WWII British sailor reconnects with Cary family after 7 decades

CARY, N.C. (WNCN) – Some British sailors found themselves far from home and far from sea when they stayed in central North Carolina during World War II. It’s a little known history that two families are digging into as they uncover their roots.

In 2011, Richard Eagles first learned of some photos his uncle, Jeff Palmer, had in a drawer at home in England.

The faces and places were snapped in Cary in the early 1940s when Palmer was on a leave for a few weeks from the Royal Navy. The sailors were staying at a camp where Umstead Park is located today.

“They refer to it as H.M.S. Crabtree,” Eagles said.

Among the photos was a family named “Fox.”

Armed with a name and a town, Eagles, who lives in Florida, tracked down an address in Cary while in the Triangle in January 2015. Instead of a family or a house at the East Chatham Street location, he found a construction site where the town was building a fire station.

“When we got here and saw that there was a big hole in the ground, we just thought, ‘Well, that’s the end of that. That’s where the story ends and it all ends.'”

Someone suggested that Eagles go down to a local drug store and see if anyone there knew anyone in the photos. So, Eagles said he showed the store’s owner the black and white photos.

“One at a time he went through them and he came to the very last one and he looked at me and said, ‘That’s Charlie Fox.’ So, I said, ‘I’m in the right place then.’ He just nodded and said, ‘Yes.'”

One phone call and one hour later, Charlie Fox’s daughter, Val, walked in.

“Well, we were just ‘Ooohing’ and ‘Aahhing,’” Val Fox said.

She was just three years old when she was photographed with Palmer, who was an 18-year-old sailor at the time. Photographs show him with her, her sister and parents.

Val Fox said she remembered one of the photos very well from her family album.

Eagles said, “We come to one of the photographs and Val said, ‘I have that photograph.’ At that point, my jaw dropped.'”

“Val said to me at the time, ‘I always wondered who these sailors were,'” Eagles said.

No one quite remembers exactly how Jeff and the Foxes met, but he says they took on a parental relationship with him the few times they spent together.

All of a sudden, all these years later, connections that were blurred by the decades came back into focus.

“It’s as if someone has come out of a mist and a fog from the past and they’ve met and they kind of drift back into the fog a little bit,” Eagles said.

“It means a lot more. These are no longer just photographs of people. They are real people.”

Those real people – Palmer and Fox – separated by generations and continents and bonded through black and white photos – were reconnected more than seven decades later through video chat technology.

“I couldn’t imagine going from a baby, more or less, to Val. It was so strange, you know,” Palmer told CBS North Carolina News by video chat.

“That man that I was looking at, 18 years old, and here I am 77. We were looking at each other! Off across the world! I mean, is that incredible?” Fox said.

In an instant, Fox and Palmer, now 92 years old, were taken back in time and began forming a new bond in the present.

“I never expected to see her again. You don’t after all those years. It was really nice to see her anyway,” Palmer said.

“Destiny is real. We’re all interconnected,” Fox said. “We want interconnection with other people. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Eagles is enjoying being a part of tracking down history and connecting with Fox too.

“It’s gone from one end of their life to another end of the life. There’s a lot of things gone in between. It’s amazing how at each end they’ve made this connection.”

Eagles is providing copies of his uncle’s photos to the town of Cary’s history center to preserve for generations to come.

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