When an Indiana woman went to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans she thought she might find photos of her high school sweetheart, a Marine who was killed in the war. Instead, Laura Mae Davis Burlingame discovered the diary that Cpl. Thomas "Cotton" Jones wrote to her, The Associated Press reported.
"I didn't have any idea there was a diary in there," said the 90-year-old woman from Mooresville, Ind.
Before he died from a Japanese sniper's bullet, Jones' last request was for whoever found the diary to return it to the girl he loved. Jones died Sept. 17, 1944, the third day of the U.S. assault on the Pacific island of Peleliu, in Palau. Jones, in the 1st Marine Division's L Company, 3rd Battalion, was among 1,794 Americans killed on Peleliu and nearby islands in a 2 1/2-month assault.
When Jones went off to war, he and Davis (as she was known then) were a couple but were not engaged. Burlingame isn't sure why she never received the diary; it had apparently been sent to a sister of Jones. In 2001, Jones' artifacts were donated to the New Orleans museum.
Fast forward to her visit earlier this year. Curator Eric Rivet let her take a closer look, using white gloves to protect the old papers from skin oils. It was the first time in his 17 years of museum work that he stood face-to-face with someone who had been unaware of their connection to a museum piece.
"I've never experienced anything quite like this," Rivet said. "I've met other people who were connected to museum artifacts, but they knew the artifacts were there. To meet someone who had no idea that they were featured in an artifact on display was a unique experience for me. But it was truly a pleasure to meet Laura Mae and to witness the event unfold."
As curator, Rivet generally spends his days focused on the artifacts, In meeting Burlingame, he witnessed how his efforts translated to a powerful human connection.
"Unfortunately, we are at a time when we're losing many of the men and women who have first-hand connections to the artifacts, so to be able to meet Laura Mae and to be with her as she read through the diary she gave to Cotton over 70 years ago was a powerful and unique experience for me," he said.
Jones wrote his last entry aboard the USS Maui on Dec. 1, 1943. He described winning $200 at craps. He had a total of $320, he wrote, and if he were back home "Laura Mae & I would really have a wonderful Xmas." He wondered if he could wire the money to her as a Christmas present.
The museum provided Burlingame a copy of the diary. Museum officials said she insisted that the original diary stay in the New Orleans museum.
The diary's 4-by-7-inch back cover was nearly filled with her photograph. The picture itself was black and white, but the photographer had tinted her cheeks pink and her lips dark red. She had signed it, "Love, Laurie."