Death of a Steelworker

raymond-harris-sykesI never knew my grandfather, Raymond Harris Sykes, as he died ten years before I was born. I always heard stories that he was killed in a construction accident while building a bridge. Or that’s what I thought I heard. A newspaper account from the Richmond Times Dispatch (dated Sunday, August 1, 1943) reveals that Raymond was injured on July 31 when a board fell from a scaffold and struck him in the head. His death certificate indicates that surgeons at MCV operated and removed fragments of skull. My grandfather lingered until the afternoon of August 3 when he died from his injuries. Raymond was only 45 years old when he died.


Dutch Gap is a large power plant on the banks of the James River in Chesterfield County. When it opened in 1944 it was one of the largest in the country and today its towering smokestacks still stand impressive on the skyline. Raymond Sykes was a steelworker, a dangerous occupation under any circumstances.



screen-shot-2016-09-08-at-7-52-18-pmRaymond’s widow, Mary Belle and daughter, Jean, were devastated. Sons Tommy and Bobby were at sea on active military duty. Jean was only 14 so Mary Belle was left to deal with grief, funeral arrangements and the hundreds of consequences and details of a sudden death. Mary Belle sent telegrams to her sons to notify them about their father’s death. Bobby , my father, was aboard  liberty ship SS Andrew Briscoe in the Mediterranean. It would be months before this telegram (pictured below) would reach his hands. The absence of sons and delayed notifications were among the many hardships and sacrifices made by families during World War II.




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