SIDNEY — A 67-year-old postcard mailed to an 87-year-old man in Washington state a few months ago set off a quest here to find the largely forgotten story of a fallen Korean War soldier from Shelby County.
Virgil Mills, of Kent, Washington, was a private in the U.S. Army, on his way to the Korean conflict aboard a troop ship when he first mailed the postcard — a photo of the ship — to his brother in 1951. Earlier this year, a son of that brother, cleaning out his parents’ house, found the card and sent it back to Mills.
“That prompted a lot of memories,” Mills said by phone, recently.
One of the memories was of his sergeant, Forest Blackford, who hailed from Shelby County, Ohio. Mills didn’t remember his real name. The squad always called him Sgt. Blackie. And Mills didn’t know as he looked at the old postcard that Blackford was from Ohio. What he did remember was that Blackford was the only member of the platoon to die in action in Korea.
It had been Mills’s job in Korea to set out colored panels so incoming pilots knew where the American line was on the ground below them. On March 14, 1952, Blackford had a communication he needed to share with men in the bunkers. He told Mills that he would set out the panels as he moved from bunker to bunker. As he was doing so, he was hit by a sniper’s bullet and killed. Everyone in the platoon had liked Sgt. Blackie. Mills’s memories almost seven decades later triggered an interest in who the sergeant had been.
“I wondered if I could find out about him,” Mills said. His “wondering” became the quest that eventually involved a history teacher at Sidney High School, a genealogist at the Shelby County Historical Society, the mayor of Sidney and Blackford’s great-niece. It resulted in framed remembrances of Blackford that were presented to several local organizations and a You Tube video, shot in Seattle, in his memory. But a lot of searching went on before that happened.
Mills first went to online military records. He found Forest Blackford, who was killed March 14, 1952, listed from Shelby. At first, Mills thought it was the town of Shelby but then he found that Blackford is buried in the Cedar Point Cemetery in Pasco.
The closest city to Pasco is Sidney, so Mills assumed Blackford had graduated from Sidney High School. He phoned the school and that’s when American history and government teacher Jamie Whitman joined the search. His history students were at that very moment studying the Korean War.
“Virgil’s call was a truly remakable coincidence, and when a Korean War veteran from across the country asks for a favor, well it’s the least we can do to try and offer help. I was confident we could find information on Sgt. Blackford, and it made sense to use this project as a perfect lesson for my students,” Whitman said. A hobbyist genealogist, he started to do his own research.
He looked at ancestry.com. He forwarded inquiries to the Department of Defense, the VFW, the American Legion, the Army Historical Museum and the Shelby County Historical Society, but everywhere he looked, he came up empty.
“I found it so disheartening that a young man, only 25 years old, could forfeit his future, dying for his country six decades ago, and today it appears virtually no one has any recollection of his sacrifice beyond his name on a casualty list for the Korean War. Sgt. Blackford was a forgotten hero of a forgotten war, and something had to be done about it,” Whitman said.
So he told his history students about his frustrations. It happened to be on a day when Sidney Mayor Mike Barhorst was a guest speaker in Whitman’s government classes. Barhorst sat in on the history class that came between two periods of government classes and heard Whitman’s tale of the quest. A hobby historian, himself, Barhorst took up the search and went to amazonaws.com, “one of my favorite resources to research local history,” he said. He found an obituary for Blackford printed in the Minster Post of March 28, 1952.
The obituary said Blackford was from Anna. That’s why no one could find him in a Sidney yearbook.
“He is the fourth Shelby county serviceman reported killed in action since the outbreak of the Korean war,” the obituary said. “Sgt. Blackford was sent overseas Aug. 10, 1951, after training at Fort Dix, N.J. He entered the service in the spring of 1950 and served with Company K of the 35th regiment, 25th Infantry division in Korea. He was a 1944 graduate of Anna high school and worked at a Sidney industrial plant before entering the Army.”
Whitman went back to the Shelby County Historical Society with information that Blackford was from Anna. Phil Abbott, a volunteer genealogist there, had been looking through microfilmed copies of the Sidney Daily News for information. Abbott found that the Daily News obituary was published April 22, 1952.
“Once we had the death date, I kept going,” Abbott, of rural Sidney, said. “I tracked down (who) his parents (were), (who) his sister (was). Sometimes (projects like this) keep me up at night. It’s like a good book, a mystery. I just can’t put it down.”
The historical society also found an Anna yearbook from 1944 — “It’s like a pamphlet,” Whitman said — and photos of Blackford as an FFA member.
Barhorst found a living relative, Tom Ailes, the son of Blackford’s sister. Ailes’s daughter was able to furnish photographs of Blackford in the military.
Whitman hoped to find some area residents who had graduated from Anna High School with Blackford, and found two with the help of students Tyler Thornsbury and Ferrara Hammer. But the alums were not well enough to talk with Whitman.
Whitman forwarded all the information and scanned copies of the photos to Mills, who was thrilled.
“Virgil was over the moon when he received those scanned documents and was so grateful to all of those people here in Shelby County who were volunteering their time and efforts to help. Virgil had also been working on a contact with Sgt. Blackford’s nephew, Tom Ailes, of Anna. Mr. Ailes had never known his Uncle Forest, but he was able to find three photographs of him in military uniform,” Whitman said.
But Whitman didn’t stop there and neither did Mills.
Whitman printed four copies of the photos, found photos of the medals Blackford had received and copied those, and printed copies of the yearbook entry. He then created framed collages chronicaling Blackford’s short life and presented one each to Anna High School, the Shelby County Historical Society, the Sidney VFW post and the Anna American Legion post. On the back of each one, he added photos of Mills as a 21-year-old Army private and as an 87-year-old retiree. He dedicated the collages to Mills.
“Jamie committed to making sure fallen soldiers are not forgotten. So it has developed into something much more than I ever envisioned,” Mills said.
For his part, Mills, with the help of a Kent friend, Ron Turner, elaborated on his own experience in Korea, added photos and created a Power Point presentation for Whitman to use when he teaches the Korean War unit to his history classes.
Then Mills and his wife visited the Museum of Flight in Seattle. He got permission to shoot a video in front of an F86 Saber jet, the very kind of plane that he used to put panels out for in Korea. He shared his recollections of the war and of the quest in Sidney to gather information about his long-dead platoon leader. He posted the video to You Tube with the title, “In Memory of Blackie 3-30-18.” It can be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=_VgCINvkLrY.
Whitman has now enlarged the project. He hopes to research and create collages about Shelby County’s soldiers who died in Vietnam. He’s pleased that Blackford is no longer unknown.
“No one knew about him. That’s not typical of Shelby County. We do a great job of honoring servicemen, especially those who gave all. Virgil helped us do that. Virgil deserves credit for wanting to know more about (Blackford) and here in Sidney, there were people who cared enough to remember,” Whitman said. “We’ve done our very best to honor him. Now we’re going to explore others from this area who gave all for country. Their sacrifice provided us with the opportunities for the freedom we enjoy today.”