Column: It’s always been about people, the dead and the living
I would like to end this year with an uplifting story of a local woman in search of her long sought after and mysterious father, a man my anthropology class just happened to discover through archaeological investigation. So many of our stories have begun in the dirt and led to some pretty incredible places. That was certainly true here.
Last month, I shared a story with readers about a local Nazi spy named William Colepaugh. We ran into him after uncovering an artifact that featured a Nazi swastika in an old trash pit on Roxbury Road in Niantic. Looking for clues as to how it got there, Colepaugh’s story emerged. But as I suggested late in that article, that artifact had absolutely nothing to do with that man. It had been brought back from Germany after WWII by an American soldier named Arlon E. Ball.
How did we arrive at that conclusion? In archaeology, one of the basic operating postulates is the “Law of Association,” whereby objects found together can be assumed to have a possible connection. There were a number of other objects students uncovered in that same trash pit. One was a small oval medallion of Jesus. It looked to be of 20th-century vintage, as was the Nazi plate.
But even more important was the discovery of a military service bracelet that featured both a name and an identification number: “Arlon E. Ball, #20155871.”
Back to East Lyme High School we went, hoping to learn more about the bracelet and the man who (we assumed) wore it. History teacher Rosamund Downing identified the artifact as a WWII “sweetheart bracelet” worn not by the serviceman but by his wife or girlfriend. (Ms. Downing just happens to collect such things.) One of the students had noted in their field journal that the bracelet was quite small and speculated that Mr. Ball must have been a very small man. Speculation is good, drawing conclusions without proper evidence is not.
Another member of the history department, Gordon King, volunteered to examine Ball’s military past. Checking enlistment records, he discovered that Ball had joined the United States Army on September 16, 1940, in Westerly, R.I. Also found was his birthdate (1921), which made him 19 years old when he entered military service. Outside of appearing in the 1930 census as a resident of New London and his death date (1968), nothing else was uncovered at the time. Through my “History Matters” column, we reached out with a public plea for any information anyone might have about Arlon E. Ball.
School ended for the summer of 2014 and when we returned, I found a note in my school mailbox from one of the secretaries saying that a woman had stopped by during the summer break looking for me and had left her name and phone number. She lived in North Stonington and her name was Margaret Ball. She was Arlon Ball’s oldest daughter.
We soon struck up a conversation about her dad. “My sister was visiting from California and the two of us decided to continue our search to find out more about our father. Our parents had married in 1959 and moved to Alaska, where my sister and I were born. We were both very young when he died in 1968. We have some memories but so much about him remained a mystery. We could not believe our luck when we Googled his name and your article in the Post Road Review came up. We felt this had to be more than a coincidence … was he trying to say something … maybe trying to tell us who he really was? When I read your article, I knew we needed to talk to about what you had found,” Margaret Ball stated.
Ms. Ball sent a photo to us of her dad in his army uniform. That was what we needed to unlock the military piece of his past.
Gordon King now went back to work, using his extensive knowledge of WWII. “In the photo his daughter sent, Arlon Ball is wearing an Eisenhower jacket with a great many clues as to his service record,” he began. “His bottom left sleeve indicates years of overseas military service, 2 ½ years (five stripes), and on his right breast is the American Eagle or ‘Ruptured Duck,’ as it was called, showing proof of an honorable discharge. Below is his unit badge with oak leaf clusters. On the left breast are his jump wings and ribbon indicating European, African or Middle East campaigns with two bronze battle stars. Also on the left breast is the army good conduct ribbon, a combat infantryman’s badge and a ribbon called the American Defense Medal which was given to those who had enlisted before Pearl Harbor. On his left shoulder is the ‘Screaming Eagle’ of the 101st Airborne Division and his cap further testifies to his qualifications as a parachute and glider volunteer. The uniform indicates a man of considerable fighting experience,” King concluded.
Margaret Ball added that she had heard family rumors that her father had been a parachute jumper and she also had come across a military paper saying how he had planted land mines in Germany late in the war and drove a supply truck in the Rhineland. “That is probably where he found that memento he brought back after the war that your class discovered,” she offered.
Margaret and her sister were very appreciative of our efforts to add to their family lore, and we made arrangements to meet in person where the small Nazi plaque, the Jesus medallion and the sweetheart bracelet would officially be returned to the Ball family.
The burn pit where the objects had been found was located on property owned by Anne Sangster and David Lewis. Normally, artifacts belong to the owner(s) of the property where they are found, but in this case, it was thought the right thing to do was to give those artifacts back to the Ball family. Ms. Ball greatly appreciated this generous gesture on the part of the Roxbury Road homeowners.
I met with Margaret Ball over in Mystic for breakfast and found myself retelling our part of the story to her. She, in turn, shared even more of her long search for the father she loved but knew so little about. Margaret spoke of a vivid memory she had of her father walking through a driving snowstorm to buy her the radio that she wanted for Christmas. A woman who had been sitting behind us at the restaurant was almost in tears listening to this story and came over to apologize for eavesdropping. She confessed to being very taken with the story she had overheard. I do not remember her name, but I do remember that she was kind enough to take a photo of Margaret as she proudly displayed her father’s WWII service bracelet on her wrist for those nearby in the restaurant to view and applaud. It was a special moment for all who were there.
Postscript: Many thanks to the 20 senior anthropology students who worked on this dig. This story is one they will never forget. Thanks to Rosamund Downing and Gordon King, two dedicated history teachers and former colleagues of mine, for their knowledgeable interpretations and for their friendship. Thanks to Anne Sangster and David Lewis (former student of mine) for their generosity with the artifacts in question. Thanks to the Ball family for letting us into their lives in a very meaningful way.
There are others who played lesser roles in this historic inquiry that I have failed to mention. Just like so many other investigations we conducted over the years, it was never just about the historic person we sought, but also about the living we would meet along the way. I met hundreds of people in very positive ways while doing these stories. For that I will always remain grateful.
Jim Littlefield is a retired history teacher in East Lyme who has written two local history books and two historical novels.
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