SIDNEY — Sidney and several Shelby County villages hosted a special group of visitors this week.
Virgil Mills and Ron Turner, both of Kent, Washington, and Mills’s daughter, Anita Mills, of Walnut Creek, California, aren’t famous. But their three-day visit here engendered an outpouring of appreciation and civic pride. Sidney Mayor Mike Barhorst even read a proclamation in their honor.
As the Sidney Daily News reported in July, Sidney High School history teacher Jamie Whitman had spearheaded a research project to find information at Virgil’s request about a Shelby County soldier who had been the sergeant in Virgil’s platoon during the Korean War.
Forest Blackford was the only person in the platoon who was killed in battle (see sidebar) and Virgil wanted to know more about him. Whitman engaged resources at Anna High School, the Shelby County Historical Society and online and sent photos and copies of newspaper clippings to Virgil.
Virgil, in turn, created a You Tube video in honor of Blackford. But that wasn’t enough. Virgil wanted to visit the sites that were important in Blackford’s life, and that meant making a trip to Ohio.
He and his companions flew from Seattle to Indianapolis and then drove a rental car to Sidney. Whitman had developed an itinerary for the group, who began calling themselves Team Forest. They arrived in Sidney, Sunday, Sept. 23.
“We went to (Cedar Point) Cemetery (in Pasco, where Blackford and others in his family are buried),” Virgil said. They spent the afternoon with Whitman’s family.
On Monday, Tilda Phlipot, director of the Shelby County Historical Society, gave Team Forest a tour of historic buildings in Sidney. She showed them where the Purity restaurant had been, a place that Blackford probably frequented, “and Chilly Jilly’s where you get Boston nut sundaes,” Anita said. They drove by several industries, because Blackford had worked in a plant before joining the Army, but no one until later knew which one it was. It turned out to be Copeland.
Phlipot also took them to the Monumental Building, where they were quite impressed with the plaques commemorating Shelby County’s war dead from as far back as the Civil War.
“We saw Forest’s name there,” Virgil said. “Tilda was so interesting and helpful.”
Then, it was off to Anna High School, Blackford’s alma mater.
“Principal Joel Stoddard welcomed us,” Virgil said. Stoddard took them to a part of the building that had been built in 1938. Blackford was a 1944 graduate, so he had studied in that part of the school. The principal shared some albums he had found that included photos of Blackford as a sophomore. The group also visited a history class and before they left, Stoddard presented Virgil with an Anna Rockets T-shirt.
“I really like (the school’s) motto: ‘Come to learn. Leave to serve.’” Virgil said.
Among the most meaningul visits was the one they made to the farm where Blackford grew up. It is now the home of Blackford’s nephew, Tom Ailes.
“There was a piece of the orginal barn still standing,” Anita said.
The three also spent time with John Blackford, Forest’s cousin.
“He had sent me some pictures of an event in 2015, the Field of Flags. He had put up a flag in Forest’s name. John’s sister, Ruth, drove from Decatur, Indiana, to be with us,” Virgil said.
John had photos of Forest’s parents and a program from the sergeant’s memorial service at Cromes Funeral Home.
“We have been given so many more pieces of the puzzle,” Turner said. “We found out Forest had been engaged — to Geneva Carey, of Sidney.” Geneva, who after Forest’s death married a state trooper, is now deceased.
On Tuesday, they sat in on Whitman’s American history class at Sidney High School. Some of Whitman’s students from last year who had helped with the Blackford research joined the class, too.
“It was wonderful to be able to thank the students who were part of this project from the last nine months,” Virgil said. “I talked about my experience in Korea and why it’s important to study history.”
That afternoon, several of the people who had helped earlier in the year to discover what they could about Blackford met with Virgil, Anita and Turner at the Spot in Sidney. Phil Abbott, a volunteer genealogist at the historical society; Tammi Johnson, librarian at Sidney High School, Whitman, Phlipot, this writer, Barhorst and Anna Frohne, of Sidney, a Spot employee whom the group had met the day before, celebrated the westerners’ stay and what their interest had done to bring Forest Blackford’s sacrifice to the fore, 66 years after his death.
Barhorst surprised them by proclaiming Sept. 25, Company K, 35th Regiment, 25th Division Remembrance Day in the city of Sidney.
“… Whereas Virgil Mills’s quest to learn more about his fallen brother-in-arms has helped to shine a spotlight on the Forgotten War and enriched the history of Shelby County; and whereas Virgil Mills has unselfishly shared his own story and first-person experiences in Korea helping to enliven the learning experiences of local students as they study the Korean War in their history classes … and using Virgil Mills’s undying devotion to his fallen comrade as an example, I encourage all citizens to thank all veterans for their service to their country — especially those who served in the Korean War — and find creative ways to take an active part in preserving the history of our community,” Barhorst read.
In response, Virgil thanked everyone present.
“I want to express my sincere appreciation to each of you for your time and being part of something that for me has been one of the most personally meaningful and rewarding experiences of my life. Our gathering here in Sidney today is the culmination of everything that has taken place during the past nine months of development of this project. And what you and your organizations represent are examples of the reasons — the ‘why’ — American service people fight to preserve and protect our liberty and freedom in so many areas of our lives,” he said.
In a seredipitous development, Norris Cromes happened into the Spot as the party was breaking up. Virgil got to talk with him about Blackford’s funeral. Cromes said that he had been working at the funeral home in 1952 and probably helped with arrangements.
Along with the delight and sense of fulfillment they got from being here, Team Forest were very impressed with Shelby County hospitality.
“Every young person we’ve met has been calm, respectful. And I’ve never been to a town in my life that so honors its history,” Turner said, fighting to keep back tears of emotion.
Virgil acknowledged that what had developed from his almost idle thought while looking at a long-ago postcard was “more than I’ve ever envisioned. It’s not just that Sgt. Blackie is no longer unknown. It’s that you know him. This has been an American story — right here, in this community, so typical of what America stands for.”