HELENA – On Memorial Day, there are many ways to remember those who served our country.
At the Montana Historical Society in Helena, there is a collection of letters that heartbreakingly illustrates the experience of war and the lives and loves, that have been lost.
Senior Manuscript Archivist Rich Aarstad shared the correspondence with KTVH.
“They are letters written by John Blinn, who went by the name Pat, and they’re letters he wrote to his childhood sweetheart Betty Ann Gaston,” said Aarstad. “Pat was born and raised in the Whitehall area, grew up around Butte, as did Betty Ann. They knew one another from grade school on up. Just before Pat’s 18th birthday, in early 1943, he joined the Marine Corps and shipped overseas after basic training as part of an artillery unit and served in the Pacific Theater during WWII.”
One letter from Pat to Bets (as he called her) reads:
“I’m sitting on the edge of my foxhole as I write this. The guns are pounding away. And to top it all off I can’t think of a darn thing to say. Pardon me while I light my pipe. Betsy, I feel like a heel. You’ve been so swell about writing and I’ve been so negligent. I haven’t any excuse for not writing. That’s what baffles me. Every time I get a blank piece of paper in front of me my mind goes just as blank. That psychiatry course you’re taking at U of M will come in darn handy when we finally get together.
Things are rough all over, even on Iwo Jima.”
Aarstad explained, “This isn’t his first battle that he’s been in. He’s been in Saipan, he’s been in Tarawa, he’s been on Guam, he’s been in some of the really nasty fights in the Pacific Theater. And so this is not new to him at all, and you can kind of tell that from his letters that it’s kind of business as usual, they’re pretty casual in nature. He doesn’t go into a lot of detail with her about the hardships of being in the war, or anything like that. You can tell when you read the letters that he really is a teenager, they come off that way. Even though he’s writing his letter, lighting his pipe as he sits on the edge of his foxhole in Iwo Jima, he’s still very much a teenager.”
Pat returned home from WWII. He continued to correspond with Betty Ann as he tried to attend several colleges, but he couldn’t seem to settle anywhere.
He eventually re-enlisted in the Marines just before the Korean War started.
Another of Pat’s letters reads:
“We’re leaving in the morning for Korea. As far as I know we fly to Seoul and then will be assigned. And all probably to the 7th regiment. As soon as I have a definite address I will write. Take care of yourself, hon. And don’t worry, I’m still lucky.”
“You can tell that he’s more serious about this,” said Aarstad. “He mentions the fact that the Korean conflict is going on and he’s not sure where they’ll end up or when he’ll end up over there, but he’s pretty sure that it’s going to happen.”
The correspondence is not just from Pat, it includes letters from Betty Ann, too. She would write to Pat and he would write back to her on the same piece of paper she used, since he often did not have paper available.
This is part of a letter from Betty Ann to Pat:
“All my love, as always, Pat. And don’t worry about me waiting, cause I’ll be there wherever you’d like me to be, any time you mention it. I have emergency vacation stored away for use whenever you get back. Guess that I’ll drop a line to Marine headquarters and tell them that we have a date, the 26th of March, and see if they’ll cooperate. As Always, Bets”
It’s clear from their letters that Bets and Pat are ready to marry when he returns home. But he was killed in action, Dec. 2, near the Chosin Reservoir.
“We never got his physical remains back,” said Aarstad. “So what we have that remains of Pat Blinn are in the letters that he wrote to Betty Ann and that adds a certain presence, a certain power to that correspondence as well, that is pretty powerful. And the fact that she didn’t hide the letters away in the closet when she started a family, it was something that was shared within her family and it was something that was cherished. He was kept alive. And so that’s part of our purpose here, is to keep him alive and to keep his presence alive and the memory of him and the service he provided to his country.”
The letters were donated to the Historical Society upon Betty Ann’s passing, with permission from the family of Pat Blinn.
They are not currently on display, but are held safely in the archives.