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USS Juneau letters arrive at City Museum

Donors 'very happy' to find home for documents

Posted: November 4, 2012 - 6:33pm  |  Updated: November 5, 2012 - 1:02am
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William Meeker Jr. added a heart to his sweetheart in his letter from September 25, 1942. The letter is from a recent collection donated to the Juneau-Douglas City Museum.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
William Meeker Jr. added a heart to his sweetheart in his letter from September 25, 1942. The letter is from a recent collection donated to the Juneau-Douglas City Museum.

Seventeen letters from a sailor aboard the ill-fated U.S.S. Juneau (CL-52), a casualty of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal during World War II, arrived at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum Thursday.

The letters, written by Seaman William George Meeker Jr. to neighbor Winefride L. Blohm throughout the course of 1942, were donated by the family of Blohm’s daughter, Mary Testa.

The museum’s curator of collections and exhibits, Jodi DeBruyne, said the letters tell a story of the developing relationship between Meeker and Blohm in the months before the young sailor’s death.

“The romance developed through the letters,” DeBruyne said. “They were childhood friends. They lived basically around the corner from each other.”

DeBruyne added, “As the letters progress, he asks for a picture of her, and he asks for her to keep sending kisses — and he intends to collect them when he sees her next — and he misses her. … It just kind of progresses into a love story.”

The first letter is dated Feb. 5, 1942, just weeks after Meeker reported for duty with the United States Navy. The last letter is dated Nov. 6, 1942 — one week before Meeker’s ship, the Juneau, was struck by two Japanese torpedoes and broke apart off the Solomon Islands.

Only 10 people survived the sinking of the Juneau and several days spent waiting for a rescue party in tropical, shark-infested waters. Meeker was not among them. He was decorated posthumously with the Purple Heart, a casualty of war.

The Testas, who donated the letters, live in Royse City, Texas, a suburb of Dallas.

Meeker was from Harrison, N.J., near where Mary Testa grew up. Meeker’s mother was her godmother.

“I can remember as a child going to her house when we lived in New Jersey,” said Mary Testa. “Now that I start thinking back, I do remember people being talked about and stuff, but not knowing anything about it.”

Ray Testa, Mary’s husband, said he has been unable to locate any living relative of Meeker, though he said he had been searching for a suitable home for the letters all year. His wife discovered the letters last December while going through possessions she inherited from Blohm, who died in 1998.

In September, Ray Testa read an article about the planning of the 70th anniversary commemoration of the Juneau’s sinking in the city for which it was named (http://bit.ly/X72RHv), and learned about Juneau Assemblymember Randy Wanamaker. The Testas decided to mail Wanamaker copies of the letters (http://bit.ly/VOPj3V).

“Both my wife and I have been talking to Randy,” said Ray Testa.

Those conversations eventually led to an extended dialogue with DeBruyne at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum.

“We were talking about making a copy of the letters … so that we would have them in our museum in time for the remembrance event, and it just sort of developed from there,” said Wanamaker, who is in Seattle this weekend. “I told him, well, if they were interested in talking with the City or State Museum here, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for them to talk with them.”

“Those letters deserve a permanent home. And sure enough, the museum there in Juneau was quite attractive to be placed,” Ray Testa explained. “We made copies for ourselves to keep, and decided to ship the originals to Juneau.”

In addition to the letters, envelopes in which they were sent, nine photographs of Meeker and Blohm, New Jersey newspaper clippings about Meeker, and a document written in Japanese are also included in the collection, which is filed under accession number JDCM 2012.48.

DeBruyne said that while no special exhibit for the collection is currently planned, the original letters will be on display at a reception next Saturday (http://bit.ly/TYWMWV), three days before the 70th anniversary of the Juneau’s sinking. Photocopies will also be available.

“They’re just going to be out if people want to read through them,” said DeBruyne of the copies.

Wanamaker said he has not yet had the opportunity to view the Meeker collection, but he said he was “just so pleased” to hear of its arrival in Juneau.

“I’m very excited about seeing the collection once it’s all inventoried,” Wanamaker said.

At the reception, Perseverence Theatre’s Bryan Crowder will read selections from the letters, lending dramatic voice to the words of the young Navy man who died 70 years ago.

Mary Testa said she is “very happy” at the thought of the letters having a permanent home and the story of Meeker and her mother becoming part of Juneau’s history.

“This is something that, if something happens to Ray and I, nothing’s ever going to happen to it,” said Mary Testa. “And since we don’t have kids to hand it down to, I’m really proud that we have found someone who really wants to take it, and take a piece of history and give it a home, so that William is not forgotten.”

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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