Hatbox letters mystery: Forgotten notes forge bonds
June 7, 2013
- "Seeing the way he talked, the expressions he used as a young man, it was just amazing. It was so much fun." - Teri Winnett, daughter of Eural "Dale" Harvill
What began as a trivial consignment purchase 15 years ago ended with a pair of siblings obtaining a priceless link to their past.
Pamela Gilliland was at an estate sale in Drumright, Okla., when she came across an old hatbox, which she purchased for $1.
Once home, she discovered that the box contained a treasure trove of correspondence -- 250 handwritten letters to Mr. and Mrs. E.H. Harvill from their sons, Robert and Eural, highlighting their experiences as WWII-era Soldiers -- one stationed at Fort Campbell.
The letters sat forgotten after initial attempts to locate the Family members of the brothers fell flat. When Gilliland decided to rekindle the mystery, she enlisted the help of history enthusiast Doug Eaton, self-published author of "Letters to Walter: A Personal Look at WWII Through the Eyes of a Young Soldier."
When Drumright residents learned of the ongoing search, many were quick to assist Eaton, who was soon put in touch with Nathan Harvill. Harvill's wife pored over genealogy websites, eventually finding and contacting Teri Winnett, daughter of Eural "Dale" Harvill and her brother, Mike Harvill -- Nathan's third cousins.
"Nathan and his wife spent hours going through everything they could find," said Winnett. "They spent a lot of time and a lot of effort to find us. It's incredible that people would work that hard for something like this. We couldn't thank them enough."
The extensive search finally yielded the names of people who could keep the misplaced letters in a home among Family. Through mutual planning, it was decided that Teri and Mike would meet with Gilliland, Eaton and their cousin over Memorial Day weekend to retrieve the correspondence.
A third sibling was unable to attend due to health issues.
To accommodate the buzz generated through the community by this story, Drumright's city hall was specially opened on a Saturday to host the reunion, courtesy of assistant Mayor Danny Cooper.
Gilliland, who only read one of the letters in the hatbox because "it was too personal," was ecstatic to see the letters she'd held onto for 15 years find their way to the Soldiers' Family members. Had they not been located, it is likely they would have remained unread and untouched -- but never discarded.
"If you throw it away, you're throwing away the vets," said Gilliland in a tearful interview with Grant Sloan of News on 6, Tulsa, Okla. "We owe the vets; you can't do that."
Gilliland's consideration for the letters gave Winnett and her brother the chance to know more about their uncle Robert, who traveled to England with an Army band and their father, who joined the Army in 1945 and was stationed at Fort Campbell soon after.
"He worked in the motor pool," said Winnett. "He was a mechanic and he trained other mechanics how to drive the big trucks and vehicles."
In addition to Army life, Winnett says she's learning more about her father and the man he was before he started a Family.
"You think you really know somebody, but we obviously didn't know my dad when he was young," she said. "Seeing the way he talked, the expressions he used as a young man, it was just amazing. It was so much fun."
Especially fun was reading her father's recollection to his parents about meeting a girl at Fort Campbell and taking her on a movie date. Though he liked her, he wrote, "I don't want to get too thick with her, though, because I don't want to get married."
"About three months later, they were married," said Winnett with a laugh. "When Mom told the story about them meeting when we were growing up, it was all romantic. But they were devoted to each other until the day he died."
The Harvill brothers' letters went back to Texas with Winnett, where she is busy preserving and scanning them to share with her brothers in Nashville, Tenn., and any other Family members who would like to see them. She said she and her Family are extremely grateful to Gilliland, Eaton and each person in Oklahoma who got involved in solving the mystery of the hatbox letters.
"We couldn't think of a way to thank them; you can only say 'thank you' so many times," said Winnett. "Moore, Oklahoma just had that big tornado, so we asked if it'd be OK if we donated to the relief effort…and that's what we did as a thank you."