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Letters from the trunk: Surprise endings

This is the final column in a special four-part series.

Ideas for stories come to writers through a variety of means. Sometimes they come from texts, like the one I received from Renee Naeger on a cold day last winter.  Her mention of “a soldier’s letters they’d uncovered” made me think of Memorial Day. “Great column for then,” I told her, and filed the thought away.    

Little did I know what a story idea it was.

In April, I was finally introduced to the antique trunk they had found, one filled with a stack of correspondence that held unique resurrection power – the kind that could bring to life one of those we memorialize on patriotic holidays. My fascination with that treasure trove of letters from Army Air Corpsman John Allen Price to his mother led to several published pieces and even a podcast that aired nationally on Memorial Day. Tyler Bridge, down at Brookhaven Music’s recording studios, helped make that happen, as well as my husband, who blew “Taps” for the sound track. (Nice job, Honey.)

And while the letters taught important history lessons, they were a hard read, especially those that referenced the future. In one, Price told his brother that when he got out, they could move to Kansas City and seek work. He was making plans, but I had seen the condolence telegrams. I knew the end of the story.

Or maybe I didn’t.

That’s because John Allen Price’s influence really didn’t end when he became Mississippi’s first casualty of World War II. Neither did the interesting letters. I was scanning my emails on June 9 when I came across this one:

“Dear Kim, my sister read your story with emotional interest. She and I are nieces of John Allen Price. We have always wondered what happened to Uncle John Allen’s letters, as Grandmother always saved everything . . .”

So I made a call to Leonora Blaise (“Little Leonora” in Price’s letters), who is now 84 and eager to share what she remembers.

It was Blaise’s husband, I learned, who first spotted the “Your son, John Allen” headline while viewing the online edition of The Daily Leader at their home in Camarillo, California. “He brought me in from another room and said, ‘Leonora, you’re not going to believe this.’ And I couldn’t,” Blaise explained.   

Throughout our phone conversation she spoke fondly of her “6-2, black-eyed, black-haired, very handsome” uncle, occasionally pausing to cry, or to laugh. Blaise described a man who made time to take her to the Jackson Zoo the week before he left for boot camp, one whose absence was the forever-felt kind in the home where she was raised by Price’s mother, Leona.

“I remember the morning he left,” she recalled. “I was five. We were all living in downtown McComb where my grandmother ran a boarding house. I crawled out of her bed and we hugged him there in the doorway.”

Blaise also remembers the December day in 1941 when the Red Cross called: “Pop went and got the telegram. They tried to shield me from what was going on, but I remember my grandmother went to bed. She was devastated.”   

Six years passed before Price’s remains returned to Mississippi. A yellowed copy of the November 5, 1947, edition of The Leader (as The Daily Leader was called at the time) provides these details: “The body of John Allen Price, a hero of Pearl Harbor, reached Brookhaven early Thursday morning and accorded military honors at the train by the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.”

Denise Pannell, Blaise’s daughter, remembers a John Allen memorial table in the far-right room of the Price family’s log homestead in Bogue Chitto: “It had a flag and a poster from Pleasant Hill Baptist Church that showed all their members who had gone into the service. There were other items, too, but we children were only allowed to look at them. It was a sacred spot.”

In 1970, Leona’s headstone was placed just yards away from her son’s grave at Pleasant Hill Cemetery. How her trunk of letters was displaced and forgotten for nearly half a century remains a mystery, but the family’s desire to honor Price’s memory never waned. Denise’s son — John Allen Pannell, born in 1984 — provides living proof.

Nearly 3,500 military personnel were killed or wounded in the Pearl Harbor attack. A year before, Price penned these thoughtful words: “Why do people have to war and scrap all the time? I have never had cause to fight but twice in my life. I don’t see why other people can’t avert it. I guess there will never be an end to it.”

And for those of you who have been following this series, you’ll notice he signed that letter a bit differently than the rest:

“All my love, John Allen.”

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.