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WWII Marine's diary: A brief look at a brief life

May. 27, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Laura Mae Davis Burlingame
Laura Mae Davis Burlingame, 90, displays a copy of the first pages of the diary of Marine Cpl. Thomas 'Cotton' Jones, at her Moorseville, Ind., home. Burlingame had given the diary to Jones, a 22-year-old machine gunner, who died in the bloody assault on a Japanese-held island. (Michael Conroy/AP)
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Laura Mae Davis Burlingame holds a photo of herself from high school. The photo filled the back cover of a diary she had given to Marine Cpl. Thomas 'Cotton' Jones. (Michael Conroy/AP)
This photo provided by the National WWII Museum shows Marine Cpl. Thomas 'Cotton' Jones. (via AP)

NEW ORLEANS — Before Cpl. Thomas “Cotton” Jones was killed by a Japanese sniper in the South Pacific in 1944, he wrote what he called his “last life request” to anyone who might find his diary: Please give it to Laura Mae Davis, the girl he loved.

Davis did get to read the diary — but not until nearly 70 years later, when she saw it in a display case at the National World War II Museum.

“I didn’t have any idea there was a diary in there,” said the 90-year-old woman from the state of Indiana. She said it brought tears to her eyes.

Laura Mae Davis Burlingame — she married an Army Air Corps man in 1945 — had gone to the New Orleans museum on April 24 looking for a display commemorating the young Marine who had been her high-school sweetheart.

“I figured I’d see pictures of him and the fellows he’d served with and articles about where he served,” she said.

She was stunned to find the diary of the 22-year-old machine gunner.

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 someone found “themselves mentioned in an artifact in the museum,” Rivet said.

The diary was a gift to Jones from Davis. They had met in the class of ‘41 at Winslow High School. “He was a basketball player and I was a cheerleader,” she said.

Jones had given her his class ring but they weren’t engaged, she said. They had dated through high school. They went to the prom together.

He made his first diary entry while a private at Camp Elliott in San Diego, a little less than a year before he was killed. He described it as “my life history of my days in the U.S. Marine Corps ... And most of all my love for Laura Mae for whom my heart is completely filled. So if you all get a chance please return it to her. I (am) writing this as my last life request.”

A sniper’s bullet between the eyes killed Jones on Sept. 17, 1944, the third day of the U.S. assault on the Pacific island of Peleliu, in Palau.

Peleliu was where U.S. forces learned the Japanese had changed their island defense tactics. Instead of concentrating units on the beaches and finishing with reckless banzai charges, the Japanese holed up in bunkers, trenches, pillboxes and caves — many of them blasted into the island’s hills and mountains — that had to be taken one at a time.

Jones, nicknamed “Cotton” in high school for his blond hair, was in the 1st Marine Division’s L Company, 3rd Battalion. He was among 1,794 Americans killed on Peleliu and nearby islands in a 2½-month assault that Marine Maj. Gen. William Rupertus had predicted would be over in a few days. Another 7,302 Americans were wounded. An estimated 10,900 Japanese were killed; 19 soldiers and sailors became prisoners of war. Another 283 POWs were laborers, mostly Korean.

Burlingame said she didn’t know why she never got the diary. It apparently went first to a sister of Jones whom she didn’t know well, she said.

Robert Hunt of Evansville, the nephew who gave Jones’ artifacts to the museum in 2001, told her he had received it several years after Jones’ death and worried that passing it on to Burlingame might cause problems with her marriage. It wouldn’t have, she said: “My husband and Tommy were good friends.”

When she learned Hunt was collecting mementoes for the museum, Burlingame said, she gave him photographs and the class ring.

Jones’s last entry, written aboard the USS Maui on Dec. 1, 1943, 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.

That didn’t happen, Burlingame said. She said she was touched by the number of times he mentioned getting letters from his parents and her.

Burlingame’s tour group had to leave but the museum scanned the diary and mailed a copy to her.

The diary’s 4-inch-by-7-inch (100-millimeter-by-180-millimeter) 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.”

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