By Director of Outreach, Amber Parrow – Amber shares a discovery she made when researching her family’s history and how it made the importance of the work and sacrifice of our military real.

You wouldn’t think out of a portfolio of old papers would be a treasure, but it was. My dad had passed them on for me to find clues to family mysteries that I had been researching. The first thing I unfolded was a military tax return and the papers on a Mercury that had been sold in the 1950’s. I thought, this is not what I’m looking for, this is just a bunch of boring documents. That was until I saw the checks written by my great Uncle John and his social security card. As I kept going, I realized these were from the time he was in the Air Force. My interest was piqued.

John was 6 foot 2, blonde with brown eyes, and had the chiseled lines of the Mortensens. His sister, who everyone called Tat, was the oldest of the three siblings and in the middle was my grandpa Sonny. John was the youngest.

The Mortensens had settled in Blackwell, OK when my 2nd Great Grandfather purchased a farm off Hubbard Road from someone who had acquired it in the land-run. The following generations, including John, spent their lives working and living on this farm; still in the family to this day.

In 1951 John enlisted into the Air Force receiving his wings in 1952. John was deployed to Ashiya Aifrorce base in Japan and made flights back and forth from Japan to Korea in a C-119, or a “Flying Boxcar.”

The next paper in the collection caught me off guard. I was familiar with Western Union
telegraphs as I had seen them many times in old movies, but now it was in my hands. It was a somber moment as I could only think about the emotion that was felt the first time my great-grandparents read it. But as I held the paper, the cost of war became real. The ticker tape was pasted to the paper with the dreaded words, “we regret to inform you.”

On November 14, 1952, the aircraft John was on collided with a mountain outside of Seoul, killing all 44 on board.

The documents that followed were condolences and arrangements sent to the grieving family. Some of the letters were formal, some personal. I realized that in this portfolio every scrap of paper had been tucked away and saved over the years, as if to hang on to every little memory of John, someone who had a ready smile for others and was always willing to lend a helping hand.

The last pocket of the portfolio held a bundle of envelopes, yellowed with age and adorned with a handwriting that had a little bit of a family resemblance. The cherished letters told first-hand of John’s deployment, how he waited impatiently for his car to be sold and his request for the family to ship him his blues and a 45 Smith and Wesson (with extra moon clips). John was a crack shot and the revolver was something he could take to the range on base but also was purchased by the family to keep on his person for protection. He died wearing that beloved revolver.

In a way, the letters were a faint connection to this uncle, the one who I had heard about over the years and my dad was named after. What would things be like had John completed his tour and showed up at his parent’s doorstep in lieu of the telegraph? I can’t help but think that as senseless as his loss is, there is also a purpose.

In remembering John’s story and reading his letters, maybe we get a tiny glimpse of the sacrifice that many men and many families have given in the history of our nation to preserve our freedom; a costly price we should never forget or take for granted.

I didn’t want the letters to end, it was a connection to someone generations of our family never had a chance to meet. In a weird way, the grief seemed to live on, that we well understood John was greatly loved and greatly missed.

As I reached the final letter, it described the treasures he sent back home: a tea set for Mother, a clock for Daddy, binoculars for Sonny, and a cape for Tat. And yes, the Merc finally did sell… it was a little bit sad for John to see it go, but a relief that he no longer had to worry about it.