The story of a Marine, his sweetheart and two wars that kept them from growing old together is just one of the thousands of stories treasured and remembered in the archives of the Montana Historical Society.
Memorial Day’s roots are in the American Civil War. Once the war had ended, families gathered annually at national cemeteries to remember those who died during our country’s bloodiest conflict. With the passage of time Memorial Day became a time to remember all who died.
At the historical society, that service is honored all year long by caring for and learning from hundreds of letters, diaries, reminiscences, and oral histories from Montana soldiers and veterans.
Among that collection of soldiers’ letters and reminiscences are those of John D. “Pat” Blinn. On his 18th birthday in March 1943, Pat enlisted at the Butte Marine recruiting office. The young man from Whitehall then wrote to his childhood sweetheart Betty Ann Gaston, “I have enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.” From that point on Pat kept up a steady stream of correspondence with Betty Ann detailing everything from boot camp to life as a combat Marine.
Blinn served in the Pacific and participated in the battle for Tarawa as part of an artillery crew. He would make three more beach landings, fighting on Saipan, Guam, and Iwo Jima. During his service, he tailored his letters carefully to avoid the censor (and also to avoid upsetting Betty Ann). While his letters focus on the mundane, war is ever present and sometimes it intrudes casually, startling the reader.
In March 1945, for example, Pat wrote from his foxhole at Iwo Jima. In his letter, he does not comment about the horrific battle raging around him but complains mightily about the fact that he can’t seem to make his pen write properly—perhaps fouled by Iwo Jima’s black volcanic sands. He writes in closing, “Well Snooks I’m going to secure this—I’ve got some work to do.” What that work entailed few of us can even imagine.
For Blinn and Betty Ann, the end of the war was a mixed blessing. While the correspondence continues, the expected nuptials do not occur. Instead Blinn, like many war veterans including those today, seems uncertain of his course, enrolling at Gonzaga, dropping out and returning to Whitehall, working for the U.S. Forest Service, making a trip to Mexico, and at one point even considering re-enlisting in the Marines. Then a two-year gap occurs in the letters.
Blinn re-enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1950 with the outbreak of the Korean War and once again the correspondence becomes almost daily.
At 25 he is considered the “old man” of the company, and it is clear his service gives him a renewed sense of purpose. By October 1950 he is heading to Korea as fire team leader for I Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force. As his unit prepares ship out from Japan he writes Betty Ann, “Take care of yourself Hon and don’t worry — I’m still lucky.”
Over the next several weeks, the letters continue: he tells her about being shipped north of the 38h Parallel; later he laments, “Betsy, my Betsy — what an ass I have been—”; he sends her a newspaper clipping from Stars and Stripes with “Baby it’s cold outside” scrawled across the top. The clipping shows members of the 1st Marine Division near the Chosin Reservoir huddled around a fire in an attempt to stay warm.
As a fire team leader, Blinn is in constant combat and the physical appearance of this letters reflects this. In two instances he pulled apart the envelope Betty Ann’s letter arrived in and uses it as stationary; he writes his letter of Nov. 20, 1950, on the backside of her letter of November 10 and notes that November 10 marked the seventh anniversary of his landing on Tarawa during World War II.
On Dec. 2, 1950, Blinn and his unit are retreating along Changin Reservoir in North Korea. Ordered to take his fire team and clear a nearby hilltop, he was killed in the fighting. During the chaos of the U.S. retreat south of the 38th parallel Blinn’s body was not recovered. Several letters written by Betty Ann, but stamped “undeliverable,” make up the remainder of the collection.
Although his physical remains rest far away in North Korea, Blinn’s story remains part of Montana’s story, and his sacrifice is something we must always honor.
This Memorial Day consider how you can honor the veterans in your family. You may also want to consider donating their letters or diary to the Montana Historical Society to assure that their memory and service will never be forgotten.
The Montana Historical Society’s website is www.mhs.mt.gov and mailing address is P.O. Box 201201, Helena, MT 59620-1201.