Photo by B. Charley Gallegos
 

Unopened Package Guards Legacy of Wartime Friendship

 

AUG. 17, 2003 — In the Bataan Memorial Military Museum in Santa Fe lies a brown paper parcel tied with thick string. Nobody knows what’s in it — and nobody ever will.

The parcel has been a mystery ever since it was lovingly prepared in Belen during World War II. It was headed to the Philippine Islands but ended up in Springfield, Mo. Then it was passed from one family member to another, and was eventually sold along with the other contents of an old trunk of costume jewelry and antique dolls.

Piecing together the package’s history took the combined efforts of Janice Sanders, the Springfield woman who bought the trunk; Missourians Don and Jean Coleman, who sold the trunk; Ramona Coleman, Don’s aunt; Springfield freelance writer Mike O’Brien, and a number of Belen residents.

The plain brown parcel began its life in the hands of one Haldane Stover, of Belen. She tried to mail it to Charles W. Oles of Battery H. 200th in the Philippine Islands, but it came back stamped “Return to Sender - Service Suspended” in bold red ink.

Who was Haldane Stover? What was her relationship to the man in uniform, and what was she sending him? Was there a love letter? If Stover ever told her story, it wasn’t to anybody who would live to tell it now.

She left the package to her niece, Ramona Coleman, who has died. That left Don Coleman holding the package, along with few answers.

Sanders learned this much from Don Coleman: “He said his aunt had been very distraught about the box and asked us never to open it. He said he was tempted a few times, but in the end, he couldn’t do it.”

Sanders admitted she originally wanted to rip open the box and solve the mystery herself.

“It’s like a time capsule,” she said.

But before she had driven all the way home from the Colemans’ she changed her mind. Instead of opening it, she would search for answers. And with the help of Springfield freelance writer Mike O’Brien, she uncovered a few.

 

Local boy

 

The man who never received his parcel, Charles Oles, served in the 200th Coastal Artillery Regiment, a legendary New Mexican troop of 1,800 men who were stationed in the Philippines in September 1941.

Local veterans in the same regiment would later recall the first shots fired during the Japanese invasion there on Dec. 7, 1941, hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The fighting was fierce. American troops surrendered after five months of battle. Prisoners — American and Filipino alike — walked what history came to know as the Bataan Death March, a gruesome trail of suffering and death 70 miles long.

Records show Oles died in captivity on May 31, 1942. He was 25.

That was four days after Stover, who was 32 at the time, sent the package.

Back in Missouri, writer O’Brien found the mystery tantalizing.

“The extent of death, the numbers of soldiers who had been injured would not have been known as quickly as today. People here would still have a reason to hope what they sent would reach these men. It wasn’t until much later they knew it was futile,” O’Brien said.

So, Stover packed her returned parcel into her trunk with her heartbreak and sorrow, and evidently made no more mention of Oles.

At least, not until she willed the trunk to her niece, Ramona Coleman, hundreds of miles away in Springfield, who left it to Don Coleman, who sold it to Sanders.

 

Some clues

 

While Sanders looked for answers, she displayed the package at the Air and Military Museum of the Ozarks, where it received some local media coverage and was the subject of a lot of speculation.

What answers can be found lie mostly within the memories of Belen locals. O’Brien contacted the Valencia County News-Bulletin to help unravel the mystery.

This is what surfaced:

Mela Esquivel, who now works at Belen High School, remembers the sender of the package by a different name — Mrs. Cravy, her teacher.

“She was an old maid — at least, we thought she was. She was very old to us and moody. She dressed in browns and blacks,” she said.

Glenn Oliver used to teach high school with Stover in Belen.

“She was a quiet little lady, extremely quiet. Some people found her snippy, but I didn’t find that to be true,” he said.

Oliver said she taught biology while he taught chemistry in the late ‘40s at the school where they “shared a common wall.”

He said Stover did marry Paulie Cravy later in life. Cravy worked on the railroads. They never had children.

Oles held a place in local memory as well. Veteran Bill Gore attended Belen High School with Oles. Gore says Oles had several nicknames among the men of the 200th regiment: “Blooey” was inspired by a clown at a local carnival. “Chunk-O” was another. “He was a little bit heavier,” Gore said.

Gore says Oles had two sisters, Constance and Alma.

Constance Oles Ferguson now lives in Tucson. She said in a telephone interview she wasn’t sure about the nature of the relationship between her brother and Stover.

“I know they spent a lot of time together and that they were really friendly with each other,” she said.

Sanders enjoyed hearing how people speculated about the contents of the box and mused over what words were written on the letter she is sure must be enclosed. She even had the box X-rayed to try to peer at the treasure inside.

All that shows is a box within a box, wrapped with decorative paper and carefully tied with a bow.

After all the searching and unanswered questions, Sanders debated the final destination of the box. TV stations suggested it could be sold on eBay, which she thought inappropriate.

Eventually, she chose to donate the mystery and its story of friendship or love to Santa Fe’s Bataan Memorial Military Museum, where it can touch lives and spark the imaginations of veterans and civilians for years to come.

Curator Rick Padilla promises the box will remain unopened.

 

Brandy Slagle for the Valencia County News-Bulletin