|Photo by B. Charley Gallegos
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
“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
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