Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Boxes of History

In general antique stores are a frustrating place for lovers of history.  So many artifacts to see.  So little context to place them in.  I have been known to sort through an entire box of old photos, grouping together individuals who seem to be related, trying vainly to make out their family stories.

Sometimes you have just a little more luck.  The other day I was in a store that seems to specialize in estate sales.  In theory this means that related items are grouped together, at least until they start to walk out the door with new owners.  And I noticed a pair of interesting boxes...

This one is more or less a foot locker.  Not military issue, it seems to be made of brown leather. Here is the front:

Nicely painted albeit a hand done job presumably by its owner.  It refers of course to the Alcan Highway (the HGY designation is atypical).  This was a 1,680 mile long road through the Yukon Territory of Canada and on into the US Territory of Alaska.  It had been under discussion for decades but the military necessity of it became apparent after the Pearl Harbor attack of 7 June, 1941. Approval for the highway came just two months later.  Despite extreme challenges from weather and terrain the highway was actually completed entirely in 1942.  Ongoing work and improvements continued throughout the war years.

Chester W. Nelson poses the difficulty of having a common last name.  But he at least came from a minuscule town so there are a few crumbs of info out on the internet.  The 1940 census indicates he was 31 years old and married.  There is a Chester W. Nelson buried in Alden.  Assuming a minor birth date discrepancy (born in 1908 vs 09?) this appears to be him.  He passed away in 1994.  I would not be at all surprised if his adventure to the wilderness in 1943 and 44 was his only venture out into the wider world.

The side of this box has a few remnants of shipping labels, they appear to go with both rail and sea travel.  The significance of the Portland Oregon address is unclear.  Maybe that is where he got off the train and on a boat?

In the same store there was a smaller box, this one of plain wood.

Camp Menomonie was a Civilian Conservation Corps camp 3 miles northwest of Menomonie Wisconsin.  2602 refers to the CCC company that was stationed there.  This company was organized in July of 1934 at Fort Sheridan.  This was a "drought relief camp" in Illinois.  After a stint doing quarry work near Elmhurst Illinois the 2602 contingent was sent to the newly opened camp near Menomonie, arriving in  November of 1935.

I find references to Camp Menomonie being in active operation as late as 1939, but as America mobilized for a possible war the CCC organization was downsized significantly, then eliminated entirely in 1942.  By then the pool of young, unemployed men that the Corps was designed to gainfully employ were all enlisting in the military.

Bekken is a more common name than you might imagine.  He does not appear in photos of the 2602 Company from 1937. After their move north the recruits for the 2602 Company appear to have come from the local area.  So most likely Bekken was from nearby Bloomer Wisconsin.  His time in the CCC must have been brief, because by December 7th 1941 this Pete Bekken was aboard the battleship USS California when she was sunk at Pearl Harbor.  Despite wounds incurred that day he continued to serve in the US Navy throughout the war and in fact had a 21 year career in the service.

Pete Bekken has proven to be an elusive figure.  I have a local newspaper article that has him home on leave talking to the local Kiwanis club about his experiences.  He speaks highly of the Red Cross and that the attack on the California left him with literally just the clothes on his back.  But my attempts to find more details and to confirm his probable stint in the CCC have run up against a blank wall.  I know he retired from the Navy in 1960 and suspect he lived in California after that point.  Oh, and here is his picture...

Not sure, but the peculiar difficulty I encountered trying to track him through pubic record such as census data almost makes we wonder if "Pete" was a nick name.  I suppose he may be still alive somewhere, well into his 90s by now.  If so, tip of the hat Mr. Bekken, and thank you for your service.

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