When you learn about the life and times of CIRI shareholder Percy Blatchford, you can’t help but be impressed. A collection honoring Blatchford’s 30- year career in the military is now on display in the Alaska Veterans Museum in downtown Anchorage. Although Blatchford passed away in 2003, his story continues to resonate with people. Even when they stumble upon it by accident.
Kelly Turney owns Alaska Picker, an antique and salvage business in Wasilla, Alaska. A couple of years ago, CIRI shareholder Joel Blatchford showed up in Turney’s shop offering to sell some trunks and foot lockers loaded with military odds and ends that had belonged to his father.
“We started talking and he told me he had more,” Turney said. “Over the course of the next month he made five or six more trips. I started putting the collection together and going through the paperwork and then I went online and started Googling who he (Percy) was and I’m like, ‘This is amazing. It doesn’t belong in my store, it belongs somewhere else.’”
This is where Kaleigh Wotring enters the story. Wotring serves on the board of directors of the Alaska Veterans Museum, located in downtown Anchorage. She was visiting Alaska Picker to check out a drone Turney had acquired when Turney mentioned the Percy Blatchford items he had collected. And Turney had an offer for Wotring, “Take it. It belongs in a museum.”
“I love history anyway and finding the story behind whatever items come in through my shop,” Turney said. “So when I saw how important this story was and how important this may have been to not only the military but to the Alaska Native community and to the state, this stuff had to go to a museum.”
A soldier, hunter, boxer, adventurer
Originally born in Golovin, Alaska, Percy Blatchford was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 after World War II had broken out. He was assigned to units in Alaska and, according to Wotring, was part of Castner’s Cutthroats, an elite unit of scouts led by Col. Lawrence Castner that performed reconnaissance missions in the Aleutian Islands during the war.
After Blatchford’s service during the war, he reenlisted, this time with the U.S. Air Force, where he trained dogs for rescue missions and joined a pararescue unit, which involved jumping out of airplanes. Wotring said he even combined the two—teaching dogs to jump out of airplanes to assist in rescue missions.
His skills as an outdoorsman caught the attention of the military brass. The collection at the museum features a letter written to Blatchford by James Doolittle, the famous pilot who led the first aerial raid over Tokyo during World War II. Blatchford had led Doolittle on a polar bear hunt near Barrow.
“Am sorry that I didn’t have my knife along Friday,” Doolittle said in the letter. “First, so that I could have made it available to you when yours got dull, but more importantly, to me, in order that I might have learned something about skinning through actual experience under your tutelage.”
The military is also where Blatchford picked up boxing, by accident. According to Wotring, after offending an officer’s sensibilities, the officer challenged Blatchford to a boxing match.
“Percy was really scared. He had never boxed before,” said Wotring. “Then the guy (officer) started to brag about how good he was and how he was going to make Percy pay. Percy broke four of his ribs.”
Blatchford went on to become the Alaska boxing champ and reportedly even fought Joe Louis in an exhibition bout while stationed in Adak. The fight was a military morale booster for the entertainment of the troops. No records have been found to indicate who won.
Blatchford’s obituary reports he helped build the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., received the Medical Medal of Merit from President Reagan and even trained beluga whales for the military.
Rifles make the collection complete
A few years before Kelly Turney received Blatchford’s military mementos, Scott Hamann, the chair of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in Kenai, connected with Joel Blatchford and acquired two of his father’s rifles – a Springfield 03A3 and an M1 Garand.
Hamann wanted to auction off the guns to raise money for the NRA. The auction was a success: The rifles sold for $16,000, to Hamann himself. Like Turney, the more Hamann learned about Blatchford, the more he felt like the rifles belonged in a museum rather than his own collection.
“I just felt the right thing to do was donate them to the museum so people could appreciate him and get to know Percy, cause he’s just a really great, great Alaska story. Anybody that gets into it just has to fall in love with him really,” Hamann said.
Last year, Hamann learned about a gala to raise money for the Alaska Veterans Museum and inquired about donating the rifles. The person he contacted was Kaleigh Wotring, who heard the name and immediately realized the opportunity to make the collection complete.
“I can’t express on paper how appreciative I am for the museum to have something so special, but also for me personally,” Wotring said. “I hear a lot of stories. I hear everybody’s story. But for some reason Percy’s story was special to me. It was particularly poignant.”
Courtesy of generosity and serendipity, everything is now in a display case at the museum. The rifles. The letter from Jimmy Doolittle. The article about the Joe Lewis boxing match. A collection of odds and ends that pieces together and honors the amazing life of one of CIRI’s original shareholders, Percy Blatchford.