Personalized Pens: History in Your Hand

(This page revised April 20, 2017)

Reference Info Index | Glossopedia  ]


Every collector has encountered, or will encounter, pens that have been personalized with their owners’ names. Most collectors, I think, shun these pens. A smaller number don’t care one way or the other, and what I would expect to be an even smaller number seek out personalized pens. This article will not tell you whether you should collect personalized pens; that’s very much a personal choice.

In general, I do not actively seek out personalized pens, but there are exceptions to this rule. When I encounter one, for example, that might have been carried into war by a soldier, sailor, flyer, or Marine, I want that pen. As a student of World War II, I find personal histories and memoirs of those who were on the ground, in ships, and in the air to be fascinating. The quest for pens with these sorts of connections leads me to check on the names I find on my pens, and when I find one that is interesting, I research that person further. Maybe the person did indeed fight in a war, and maybe not. But he or she is still interesting, and although not an important personage still important to those who knew and loved him or her.

This article, then, is a compilation of the information I have discovered about the owners of some of my pens. It is my hope that it might encourage you to research the names on pens you own (or might own in the future).


Alfred Abelson

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

The pen above is a Mabie Todd Swan “Military” pen that was made in New York during World War I. It got the “Military” designation because it is what is known as a trench pen. In a trench pen, ink pellets kept in a compartment at the distal end of the barrel were mixed with water in the pen’s barrel to produce ink. This invention eliminated the need to obtain and carry liquid ink, a near impossibility under trench-warfare combat conditions — and forbidden in some cases, probably because fragments from a glass ink bottle could do serious damage to a soldier who was otherwise uninjured by the bullet that shattered his ink bottle. The pen’s broad cap band bears a neat hand-engraved inscription reading Alfred Abelson 6–4–18.

Did Alfred Abelson carry his Swan off to the war Over There? Here is what I've learned about him:

Alfred's draft registrationAlfred Andrew Abelson was a blue-eyed blond, born in Bodø, Norway, on June 3, 1888. Arriving in the United States on May 19, 1910, he made his way to Duluth, Minnesota, where he found work as a carpenter. His first American residence was at 1014 8th Avenue East, in the home of his elder brother Hans J. Abelson, who had arrived in the U.S. in 1902 with his wife Thale.

Recruitment poster
This poster, or one similar to it, might have influenced Al­fred to join the Army Air Service.

When America raised the call in June 1917 for all men between the ages of 21 and 31 to register for conscription, Alfred, who had not yet taken citizenship, went down on the first day and registered as an alien. His registration form is shown, front and back, to the left. He was called up in 1918, and on June 11, 1918, one week to the day after the date of the inscription on his pen, he was inducted into the U.S. Army. I believe the pen was a going-away gift from someone, possibly a starry-eyed young woman or possibly his brother and sister-in-law. Alfred was assigned Service Number 3451024. After he went through basic training, he was assigned to the 864th Aero Squadron and sent to the Air Service Mechanics School in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he was training to work on airplanes when the war ended. He was mustered out on January 25, 1919, so no, he did not carry his pen off to war — but he probably did use it to write letters home during his time in the Army.

After his Army discharge, he returned to his home with Hans and Thale, where he stayed for two or three years, and to his work as a carpenter. On September 3, 1920, he became an American citizen. By 1922, he had moved to 1009 East 8th Street and established himself as a contractor. He married Ida Alette Haagensen, probably in 1924, and as they raised their son Kermit and daughters Alice and Hjordis, the Abelsons lived in a series of homes through the years. In 1930, he was working on a poultry farm as a carpenter, and by 1940 he had restarted his contracting business. When he registered for the World War II draft in 1942, he was working in a shipyard for the Zenith Dredge Company, a harbor construction firm that shelved all work but shipbuilding for the duration of the war emergency.

The final piece of information I have found about Alfred Abelson is a short article from The Daily Plainsman, of Huron, South Dakota. Dated Sunday, September 7, 1958, it reads as follows:

Rain Contributes To Fatal Mishap
United Press International

Alfred Abelson, 66, Duluth, Minn, died in a Duluth hospital early Saturday of injuries received when he was struck by a car at a residential intersection here during a rainstorm Friday night. The death raised the Minnesota traffic death count to 460 for the year compared with 420 at this time a year ago. Abelson was struck down as he tried to dash across a street to get out of the rain, witnesses said. Vincent J. Nowa. 39, Duluth, driver of the car, was not held.


Alfred Lindow

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The pen above is a Sheaffer Balance Defender, the larger non-Lifetime member of Sheaffer’s military-clip line from 1941 and 1942. It sold for $5.00. Military clips allowed pens to sit low in the pocket so that they would not appear bulky and disarrange the pocket flap, as required by the U.S. military establishment. By extending the clip and wrapping it over the top of the cap so that it mounts on the back side, Sheaffer maintained the streamlined look that had characterized the Balance since its inception a little over a decade earlier. On its barrel, the pen bears the following four-line inscription, engraved by a pantograph following the handwriting on a sheet of paper:

Lindow
U.S.S. San Juan
Sept. 27, 1942
Dec. 26, 1944

Alfred LindowAlfred Earl Lindow, Jr., was born in Houston, Texas, on September 16, 1920, to Alfred and Eva Lindow, of 2308 Russell Street. His only sibling was a brother, Kenneth, who was two years his junior. In the early 1930s, the family moved to 803 West Melwood Street.

Alfred Lindow in high schoolThe Lindow boys attended John H. Reagan Senior High School in Houston, from which Al (shown to the left in his sophomore yearbook photo) graduated in the class of 1938; he then attended Massey Business College. In 1940, Al still lived with his family and was earning a wage as a bookkeeper in a radio shop.

On May 12, 1942, Al (shown to the right in a hand-colored photograph taken on his boot camp graduation) enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve and was assigned Service Number 6247012. After boot camp and training in a specialty, he served in the Pacific Theater. Sent to Pearl Harbor on September 1, 1942, he was assigned to USS San Juan (CL-54), an Atlanta-class light anti-aircraft cruiser, and reported aboard on September 27. When he joined San Juan, his rank was Fire Controlman 3rd class; on May 1, 1944, he was promoted to Fire Controlman 2nd class. (As a fire controlman, Al was part of a team that was responsible for the operation of several types of range-finding equipment and for solving ballistics calculations to control the firing of the ship’s guns.) On December 19 and 20, 1944, the Lexington task group, of whose screening force San Juan (shown to the right below) was an element,USS San Juan, 1944 suffered badly in a typhoon and returned to the Navy’s advance base on Ulithi Atoll in the Caroline Islands. On December 25, as the task group was preparing to depart for its next mission, Al received orders to report to the Naval Training School at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., for advanced fire control training. He was detached from San Juan the next day.

Al Lindow in his later yearsAfter the war, Al returned to Houston, settled down to operate Houston Restaurant Supply for over 40 years with his father, and got married and raised a family. He and his wife Lucille had four children. He was a 32d degree Mason for over 50 years, served faithfully in the Lions Club, served as president of his neighborhood civic club, and was the general secretary for Sunday School at Garden Oaks Baptist Church.

Al loved gardening and was an avid orchid grower. He played softball and coached girls’ volleyball and baseball, and he and Lucille shared a passion for hunting. He died on January 8, 2014. The photo above and to the left, crooked smile and all, came from the February 2014 newsletter of his Lions Club district.

Lloyd Oehlert

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The pen above is a Parker “striped” Duofold Junior, a model introduced in 1940. Parker referred to the longitudinally striated pattern, which contrasted with the lateral striations of the then-popular Vacumatic, as Laidtone. “Stripers” came in three colors, Dusty Red, Green and Gold, and Blue Pearl (the color of this pen), plus black, of course, and they were mostly fitted with Vacumatic fillers, although a few lower-priced models were button fillers. (This pen is a Vacumatic-filling model, and its date code indicates that it was made in the first three months of 1942.)

Oehlert and his crewLloyd George “Bud” Oehlert was born on 21 Jun 1922, probably in Kansas City, Kansas, to George W. and Lottie M. Oehlert of 3730 Ruby Avenue. On September 5, 1941, he married Lola Mae Leven, an Oklahoma native whose family had moved to Kansas City by 1935. The groom was 19 years of age, the bride 16.

During World War II, as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Forces, he was assigned to the 335th Bombardment Squadron (shoulder patch below, to the right), 95th Bombardment Group (Heavy), in the 8th Air Force. Bud served as a bomber pilot, flying four-engined Boeing B-17G “Flying Fortress” aircraft. He is recorded as having flown 15 different aircraft on 19 combat missions from January 23 to April 17, 1945, all of them over various targets in Germany except the last, which was over Aussig, Czechoslovakia.

335th BS patchAt the end of the war in Europe, Bud Oehlert also flew two more aircraft on “mercy” missions (CHOWHOUND 1, May 1, 1945, flying Little Joe (tail number 48667) to carry food to The Hague; and REVIVAL MISSION 2, May 19, 1945, flying The Red Fox (tail number 48269) to bring POWs back to the U.K.). The aircraft under which he and his crew were photographed in the picture to the left, bearing tail number 2102455 and the name Screaming Eagle, was assigned to the 335th Squadron, but there is no record that Bud ever flew it as pilot. In this photo, Bud is at the right end of the front row; he was at that time the plane’s copilot.

Lloyd Oehlert retired from the USAAF as a captain. Before he went to war, he had been a welder; on his discharge, he returned to Lola and went to work for a food service machine company. Together Lloyd and Lola raised four children. 1960 found him working as a superintendent for the KC Bolt, Nut & Screw Company.

Lloyd was a lifelong Roman Catholic. He died on September 11, 2010, in Bucyrus, Kansas, and he is buried in Queen of the Holy Rosary Church cemetery there. His beloved bride followed hin in death by three months, passing away on December 8, 2010. She is buried beside her husband of 69 years.

Charles McNicol

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Fountain pen Magnifying glass

StickerThe pen above is a Sheaffer Balance Valiant, the larger Lifetime member of Sheaffer’s military-clip line from 1941 and 1942. It sold for $10.00, and that should perhaps have been a clue that its owner did not fight in World War II. Military clips allowed pens to sit low in the pocket so that they would not appear bulky and disarrange the pocket flap, as required by the U.S. military establishment. By extending the clip and wrapping it over the top of the cap so that it mounts on the back side, Sheaffer maintained the streamlined look that had characterized the Balance since its inception a little over a decade earlier. To indicate that its products conformed to military requirements, Sheaffer affixed to the inside of its box covers the paper sticker shown to the right.

McNicol's homeCharles Aloysius McNicol was born on February 28, 1873, in East Liverpool, Ohio, the youngest of seven children of Patrick and Ellen McNicol. Both of his parents were Irish immigrants, and Patrick worked in the manufacture of earthenware. Charles followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a superintendent for the Standard Pottery Company of East Liverpool. He worked for Standard until he retired.

Until 1902, Charles lived in his family’s home at 23712 Fifth Street; in that year he stood up in St. Aloysius Roman Catholic Church to marry Rebecca Kenney, who was a year or so his senior, and the couple moved to 667 Lincoln Avenue. Their new home was the left half of the duplex shown in the photograph to the left (photo © 2015 Google, Inc.). And therein lies a tale. Over the next few decades, the McNicol residence moved to 669 Lincoln Avenue, the other side of the duplex, and then to 669B, indicating that the building had been cut up into apartments. 669B was on the upper floor, at the back, sharing with 669C the entrance on the side of the building. The 1940 census lists their address as “669 Third Street.” There is a Third Street in East Liverpool, but there is not now, and never was, a 669 Third Street.

When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Charles was 44 years old, too old to be required to register for conscription. Later registrations, however, included men of his age, and in September 1918 he registered. His registration form records that he had gray eyes and brown hair.

On December 23, 1934, Rebecca died, leaving Charles a widower. Between then and 1940, he remarried; his second wife was the former Anna Cora Speaight, a spinster who was two years older than her new husband. In his 74th year, Charles left her a widow, on June 23, 1946.

Hugh Cowden

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The pen above is a Parker Vacumatic Shadow-Wave Junior in green. It was made in the third quarter of 1938. The Vacumatic, which had premiered in 1933, was an innovative pen with an ink capacity roughly twice that of competing pens of its day; and with its dramatic Art Deco styling that featured alternating clear and colored celluloid striations, it was very attractive. It remained in production until 1948, although its ink capacity steadily declined as a result of design changes to streamline its shape and engineering refinements to keep it from leaking in the user’s pocket when taken up in an airplane.

Chicago Symphony Brass EnsembleHugh Alan Cowden was born on April 9, 1915, in London, England, to Alan and Lee Cowden. As a youth, he learned to play the French horn, and when he came to the United States in the late 1930s, he took up residence at 2718 Morris Avenue in New York City and began to put his musical ability to good use. He applied in April 1939 for a Social Security card, a necessary step before taking a paying job, and then became a professional musician.

In March 1941, Hugh joined the band of the 69th Regiment of the New York State Guard, and he remained on the regiment’s roster until mid-August 1942. In 1945, he moved into an apartment at 270 Huntington Avenue in Boston, Massachusetts, and became a member of the horn section of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, remaining there for two years. In 1947 he married Lillian Elvera Nelson, of Natick, Massachusetts. 1951 found him seated as assistant principal horn for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — he preferred to play fourth horn — and also holding down a slot as the horn player in the Chicago Symphony Brass Ensemble, a quintet. He is in the center in the photograph shown to the right.

When the National Broadcasting Company disbanded Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1954, most of the ensemble’s members formed a new orchestra, the Symphony of the Air. By that time, Hugh and Lillian had returned to New York, and their son Alan was born in Levittown. Hugh was part of the Symphony of the Air’s 1955 Asian tour under noted conductors Walter Hendl and Thor Johnson. His last major gig was a turn from 1956 to 1963 in the orchestra for the long-running Broadway musical My Fair Lady. During the remainder of the 1960s, he freelanced in the New York area; he is recorded as having played with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and Paul Lavalie’s Band of America.

With sons Alan and Hugh, and daughter Sara, Hugh and Lillian settled into their later years in Haleiwa, Hawaii, on the north shore of Oahu, where Hugh died in April 1988. After Hugh’s passing, Lillian N. Cowden, whose passion was weaving, moved to Bensalem, Pennsylvania, where she died in 1997. Both are buried in Beechwood Cemetery, in Hulmeville, Pennsylvania.

Aurore Decelles

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Fountain pen Magnifying glass

The pen above is an Eversharp Skyline Demi, made in the 1940s. The Skyline, designed by noted industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, led the pen world out of the Art Deco era and into the streamlined 1940s. Almost immediately after its introduction, America was drawn into World War II, and the Skyline, produced in myriad style variants, became immensely popular. It was advertised in magazines and on quiz shows, and seen in the hands of everyone from the lady at home to the soldier writing home from a combat zone.

Chase Mill, American Woolen CompanyAurore I. Decelles was born on June 8, 1897, the second of eleven children born to Antoine and Parmelia Decelles, of Oxford Road in Dudley, Massachusetts. Her parents, who were married on May 6, 1895, were both French-speaking immigrants who had come from Canada, Antoine Decelles, a shoemaker, in 1876 and Parmelia Pelland in 1889.

Sacred Heart Roman Catholic ChurchBy the time Aurore was a young woman, her family had moved to 3 Wall Street, in Webster, Mass­a­chu­setts. Aurore went to work as a weaver (loom operator) in the Chase woolen mill in Webster (shown in postcard to the left), and she appears to have remained in that occupation for the rest or her working life. The Decelles were a close-knit Roman Catholic family; Aurore and most of her siblings lived in their parents’ home well into adulthood, and when Aurore’s sister Marie married, her husband and, later, her children lived there, too. They all attended Sacred Heart Church (shown in postcard to the right), on East Main Street.

Aurore Decelles never married. She continued to live in the Wall Street house after her mother died in 1952, and so far as I can determine, never moved away. She died at the age of 91 on April 6, 1989, one of the millions upon millions of unremarked people who each contributed a tiny share in the building of America.

Cyril Buranich

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Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

The pen and pencil above are a Parker Vacumatic Shadow-Wave set in Jet Black, made in the second quarter of 1939. The Vacumatic, introduced in 1933, was one of Parker’s most successful models, featuring striking Art Deco styling and a pump filler that provided for a huge ink capacity. In 1937, it received a makeover, losing a little of its vaunted ink capacity as it became more streamlined and a little less Art Deco in appearance. This particular set has what is known as a “jeweler’s band,” a cap band design that appeared on pens made for sale through jewelers rather than through the usual pen and stationery trade.

Partial newspaper columnCyril Buranich was born on March 31, 1922, to John Buranich, a coal miner, and his wife Theodosia, who lived at 414 Columbia Avenue, Atlas, Pennsylvania. His name is recorded in the 1930 U.S. Census as Kirilo, but he seems to have been Cyril everywhere else. He was the fourth of the six sons who followed their elder sister Anna into the world. John and Theodosia were both of Russian descent and had immigrated to the U.S. from Austria in 1904.

Cyril Buranich's Navy ID cardThe Buranich boys were athletically inclined; Cyril and at least two of his brothers played baseball at Mount Carmel Township Senior High School, while at least one more of the brothers was well known on the basketball court. Cyril himself, or Cy, as the newspapers of the time named him, was a wiry youth, weighing only about 140 pounds and standing 5 feet 512 inches tall. A pitcher who sometimes played shortstop or second base, he continued playing baseball after graduating in 1939, joining the Indians, a team in a semi-pro league in the area. The Mount Carmel Item referred to him repeatedly as the Indians’ ace hurler; in two starts around the end of June 1939, he fanned 17 and 19 batsmen, respectively, in the latter game allowing only two hits while himself reaching base safely twice as described in the newspaper column shown to the right.

Wreckage at USNAS Pearl Harbor

Scene of destruction at the U.S. Naval Air Station, Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, on the morning of December 7, 1941. The aircraft at left is a PBY-5A Catalina, an amphibious patrol bomber that was used primarily for search and rescue, known fondly as a “Dumbo.” The aircraft at right center is an OS2U Kingfisher, a float plane used as a catapult-launched observation plane aboard battleships and cruisers.

Three of the Buranich sons went off to war. Joseph enlisted in the U.S. Army in November 1934, served his term, and was discharged; he then re-enlisted in March 1939. During World War II, he served in the 342d Infantry Regiment in Europe. Wounded in action in the Ruhr Pocket on April 10, 1945, he succumbed to his injuries three days later. Cyril enlisted in the U.S. Navy on the day after Christmas in 1940, and Nicholas enlisted in the Navy on June 7, 1942. Cyril trained as an aviation structural mechanic, and his first assignment sent him to the U.S. Naval Air Station at Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, where he was received on July 27, 1941. He survived the Japanese attack on the morning of December 7, 1941, and served at Pearl Harbor until January 9, 1943, when he was transferred to the Naval Air Station at Midway Island.Reunion photo By the end of September 1944, he had returned to Hawaii, to an assignment at Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station, on the northern shore of Oahu. By that time he had risen through the ranks to Aircraft Machinist’s Mate First Class, and by mid-1945 he had been promoted to Petty Officer Second Class. That promotion would have happened at about the time the photo shown to the right appeared above the fold on page 1 of the Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania, Item’s April 25, 1945, issue. (Cyril is standing, at the right side of the picture.)

After World War II ended, Cyril remained in the Navy, finally retiring in 1955 after having served at several dirtside bases and on two aircraft carriers, USS Intrepid and USS Saipan. Upon his retirement from the Navy, he immediately turned around and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. As a Technical Sergeant, he served in Automatic Test Systems, then with the Northeast Air Command, and finally with the Strategic Air Command. He retired for the second and last time in 1960.

Cyril Buranich never married. After he retired from the Air Force, he returned to his childhood home and lived there until 2006, when, having outlived his parents, all of his siblings, and many of his fellow members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors’ Association, he passed away at the age of 84. A lifelong Russian Orthodox Christian, he is buried in the family plot, in the cemetery of St. Michael’s Orthodox Church in Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania.

Edwin Coyle

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

The pen above is a Parker Vacumatic Standard in Black, with a Visometer barrel, made in 1933. The Vacumatic, introduced in that year, was one of Parker’s most successful models, featuring striking Art Deco styling and a pump filler that provided for a huge ink capacity. Although it is difficult to see in the capped photo, the signature E. A. Coyle is engraved on the barrel.

Edwin Coyle's high-school senior photoEdwin Alexander Coyle was born on July 30, 1890, to William LeMoyne Coyle and Mary Emma Kearns Coyle, of 149 Dithridge Street, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When he was born, his elder brother Dickson was three years of age; and when Edwin was four, William Junior joined the family as the third of the couple’s three sons. William Senior was a wealthy real estate broker; he and Emma were in the city's Social Circle.

After studying for nine years at the Haverford Grammar School, Eddie was sent for his college preparation to the prestigious Lawrenceville School, in New Jersey. Active in hockey, basketball, and football, he acquired the nickname “Dutch.” He also participated in the Philomathean Society, and as a senior he served as the business manager of Olla Podrida, the school’s yearbook, from which his senior photo (to the left) is taken. By the time of his graduation in 1909, his family had moved twice, first to 415 Neville Street in Pittsburgh and later to 4274 Wallingford Street. There was one more family move after he returned from Lawrenceville, to 817 North Negley Street, where the Coyles were living when Emma became a widow with William Senior’s death from congestive heart failure in 1911. By then, Eddie was a student at Cornell University, from which he graduated in the class of 1913.

After college, Eddie became a mechanic for the Buick Motor Company in Flint, Michigan. He was a quick study, and he soon accepted a position as a salesman, selling primarily Kelly-Springfield trucks, for the G. T. Overbold Motor Sales Company. 1916 found him in Plattsburgh, New York.

Captain Edwin A. Coyle, American Expeditionary ForceOn November 6, 1916, Edwin A. Coyle enlisted in the New York National Guard and, because he was a college graduate, was commissioned as a second lieutenant. His unit was called into active service on May 5, 1917, and assigned to duty at Fort Niagara, New York, on May 8. He served in the Army until honorably discharged on May 10, 1919. He was promoted to First Lieutenant in August 1917 and sent with the American Expeditionary Force to France, where he received further training, and in December he was assigned to Company C, First Battalion, 166th Infantry Regiment, 42d Division (the famed Rainbow Division). He first went into combat on July 15, 1917, in the Fourth Battle of Champagne. At Chateau Thierry on July 18, he discovered a wounded doughboy in No Man’s Land. The soldier was paralyzed and was in the field of fire of a German machine gun. Lieutenant Coyle summoned another soldier, and together they carried the wounded man to safety, fortunately receiving no wounds themselves in the process. For his gallantry, Lieutenant Coyle was recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross by his regimental commander. Soon after, he was promoted to Captain and transferred to Company A, which he led in the Battle of St. Mihiel in mid-September 1918 and then in the Meuse-Argonne campaign, which lasted until the Armistice. Along with many others who served in the First Battalion, he was profiled in a 1919 book called Rainbow Memories, by First Lieutenant Alison Reppy, his battalion’s intelligence officer, from which the photograph to the right is taken.

Returning to western Pennsylvania after his discharge, he took a position as an insurance broker for the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company. On June 4, 1919, he married Alice Gertrude McChesney; they settled at 5829 Northumberland Street, where they lived for many years. Edwin and Alice had two children, Robert McChesney Coyle, born in 1920, and Edwin Alexander Coyle, Jr., born on the day after Christmas in 1922. Sadly, Edwin Junior died 11 days later of a cerebral hemorrhage complicated by apnea.

Although Edwin did not serve in the military during World War II, he registered, as most American men were required to do. His draft registration card, filled out on April 27, 1942, bears the signature that proved to me that the Vacumatic was his pen.

Signature from pen
(Signature highlighted for visibility)
Coyle's WWII draft registration
Alice Coyle died on July 3, 1957. On April 15, 1958, Edwin remarried; his second wife was Jenifer Mary Lesslie Barbour, who had been widowed in 1942. Edwin widowed Jenifer for a second time on March 28, 1963, and she followed him into death the following December.

John Durkovitz

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

The pen above is a WASP Clipper, the signature model of the Wasp Pen Company, whose name was an acronym of the initials of the Walter A. Sheaffer Pen Company. Wasp was a sub-brand of Sheaffer, and Sheaffer used it as a testbed for the Vacuum-Fil plunger filling system. This plunger-filling pen was made in about 1940, and it was given to John Durkovitz in 1941 by his some of fellow citizens in Exeter, Pennsylvania.

John Joseph Durkovitz was the first child of Michael John Durkovitz and Mary Anna Doban Durkovitz. Michael had come to America from Slovakia, which was then part of Austria-Hungary, and had settled in Pittston, Pennsylvania, where he took a job as a pump runner in a coal mine. He married Mary on November 18, 1918, and John was born on April 6, 1919. He was followed into the world by Michael John, Jr., in 1921 and Anna Mary in 1923. By 1930, the Durkovitz family had moved to 9 Memorial Street, Exeter, Pennsylvania, where they lived for many years. Sadly, Michael Senior became ill in July 1937 and passed away in October at the age of 53, just as John was starting his senior year in high school.

Durk's draft registrationreddragonsIn 1941, with the clouds of war looming over America, John was among those called up for one year of service to their country. On June 4, he was inducted into the U.S. Army in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. Assigned Army Serial Number 33023224, he survived boot camp, was trained as a mortarman, and was assigned to the 2nd Chemical Mortar Battalion, the “Red Dragons” (unit insignia to the right). The 2nd Cml Bn was equipped with the 4.2-inch M2 rifled mortar, which was capable of firing smoke, high explosive, and phosphorus bombs as well as gas bombs (which would be held in reserve to be used in retaliation should an enemy use gas on American troops).

December 7, the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously called “a date which will live in infamy,” plunged America willy-nilly into the maelstrom of war. On that day, after having spent two long days returning from from maneuvers in North Carolina, 2nd Cml was bivouacked in a wooded area of a military reservation near Bowling Green Virginia. Sometime after midnight, a jeep came down the road. Its passenger, an unidentified officer, met with Colonel Egbert F. Bullene, the battalion commander, and 20 minutes later Bullene climbed up on the bumper of a truck to deliver the bad news to his men. “All of us who had been drafted were standing there thinking the same thing,” John recalled. “We could forget about our one year conscription. We were going to be in for a long time.”

After further training and a certain amount of infighting between officers in the higher echelons who understood the combat value of the big mortars and those who didn’t, 2nd Cml was finally given its chance and shipped to Africa in the build-up to Operation HUSKY, the Allied invasion of Sicily. On the night of July 9/10, 1943, John Durkovitz, nicknamed “Durk” and wearing the stripes of a staff sergeant and, on his right shoulder, the subdued version of the 2nd Cml unit patch (right), found himself in a landing craft, being delivered to a beach on the southern coast of the island.cmb2b On July 11, Durk and his comrades watched helplessly from the beach as 144 Douglas C-47 transport airplanes carrying troops of the 82d Airborne, in a classic case of bad timing, arrived over the beaches while an Axis air raid was in progress. The aerial convoy came under fire from one trigger-happy naval gunner, whose fire set off a fusillade. The U.S. Navy shot down 23 of the С-47s, damaged another 37, and sent eight scurrying back to Africa without having dropped their sticks of troops. Some of the doomed planes came screaming in across the beach so low that many of the mortarmen hit the ground, fearing for their lives. Fortunately, no planes crashed into them; but this tragic “friendly fire” incident cost 318 American casualties, including 83 dead. It was not a pleasant introduction to war for the men of the 2nd Chemical Mortar Battalion.

Fold3_As the Allied forces battled their way across Sicily, it became apparent that the big 4.2-inch mortars often made the difference between a successful assault and failure. (Unlike the ordinary heavy artillery, however, the men of 2nd Cml were in the thick of the fighting, not several miles behind the front line.) General George Patton declared in a written order that no division under his command would thenceforth go into battle without a chemical mortar battalion attached to it, and he was not alone in that sentiment.

After the liberation of Sicily, Durk and his unit landed at Salerno and fought their way to Cassino. They were in the thick of battle all the way to Rome, proving that the battalion motto, “Flammis Vincimus” (We Conquer with Flame) had not been chosen in vain. After the fall of Rome on June 5, 1944, they were tagged for Operation DRAGOON, the August 1944 invasion of southern France. Time and time again, the commanders of infantry units they supported with their highly mobile “heavy artillery” fire wrote that 2nd Cml had been critical to the success of their operations. On into Germany they clawed their way. One of their last actions was to capture the town of Traunstein, where the chief of police was the father of Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. So far as is known, this is the only instance of a chemical mortar battalion capturing a town, and without firing a shot, no less. It is also the only known instance of one liberating a future pope.

durk_june_wedding_annThe 2nd Chemical Mortar Battalion’s worst unit action of the war, although not its most difficult or deadly, was participation in the liberation of Dachau in Bavaria, where John Durkovitz witnessed horrors that no person should ever have to see, including an emaciated prisoner whose face lit up like the sun when he saw John. The man took a few tottering steps toward Durk and then stopped. His expression went blank, and he fell to the ground. When Durk reached him, he was dead.

By war’s end, Durk had been promoted to the highly responsible position of First Sergeant, D Company, handling the day-to-day operation of the company, whether in combat or not, and he had forged a close and lasting relationship with Company Commander First Lieutenant Paul J. Eldredge. The image to the left is a hand-tinted family photo taken after Durk returned from Europe.

Separated from the Army on October 2, 1945, Durk returned to civilian life in Exeter and went to work in construction. He also found his soulmate in a beautiful Exeter native named June Augusta Williamson, a bookkeeper only three months his junior. She lived at 63 Penn Avenue, just around the corner from the Durkovitz home, and they had gone to school together before the war. The two were married on the bride’s 29th birthday, June 26, 1948, in St. Cecelia’s Church, and they remained lifelong members of the parish. They took up residence in June’s home, where they lived with her mother, and brought daughters Janet and Jeanne into the world. Durk changed careers, becoming a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and finding a good job with the local telephone company. He was a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and he frequently participated in the parish life of his church, participating in committees for this and that — including the Special Awards committee for the church women’s annual card party in 1961. June became a hairstylist, operating a small salon in their home at 143 Mason Street, where they had moved as the need for more space grew with their daughters.

logo-itpaAfter retiring, Durk joined the Independent Telephone Pioneers Association, a volunteer organization dedicated to serving communities where independent telecommunications companies operate. John Joseph Durkowitz passed away on February 6, 2001, in a hospice house in Exeter. June Augusta Durkowitz survived her husband by 16 months, passing away on June 7, 2002. The are buried together in St. Cecelia’s Cemetery in Exeter. Their daughters are both happily married.

Interested Yet?

Pen collecting is a wonderful hobby, but when it comes right down to it, isn’t it really about meeting people with whom you share a common interest? Here, in the form of personalized pens, are several very real people with whom I share a common appreciation for pens (and, in some cases, other common interests). All of these people, or the people who loved them, cared enough about their pens to have the pens personalized, forever to be linked to their first owners. To me, this is something very special. These are not all of my personalized pens. But the variety of stories they have uncovered for me should give you a good sense of why I find them so fascinating.

Notes:
  1. The article reported Alfred’s age incorrectly. A shorter article published the previous day in the Winona Daily News, of Winona, Minnesota, reported his age correctly as 70, also giving the time of the accident as about 8 p.m. on the Friday and the time of Alfred’s death as about 1 a.m. Saturday morning.

  2. From 1921 to the present, an Air Force airplane’s full serial number consists of the last two digits of the fiscal year in which the plane was procured (not when it was built), a hyphen, and the plane's serial number among all planes procured during that fiscal year. The plane’s tail number is the last digit of the year plus the annual serial number, without a hyphen. Thus, Screaming Eagle’s tail number 2102455, derived from its serial number 42-102455, indicates that the plane was the 102,455th aircraft procured by the USAAF during the 1942 fiscal year. It was actually built in late March 1944 and was delivered to the USAAF on April 3.

  3. Atlas, Pennsylvania, is a CDP, a Census Designated Place. CDPs are created by the U.S. Census Bureau to simplify the task of visiting certain areas and enumerating their residents. Politically, Atlas is part of Mount Carmel Township.

  4. Olla podrida, literally “rotten pot,” is a Spanish stew made from pork and beans and a wide variety of other meats and vegetables, often including chickpeas. The meal is traditionally cooked for several hours in a clay pot and served as a main dish.


The information in this article is as accurate as possible, but you should not take it as absolutely authoritative or complete. If you have additions or corrections to this page, please consider sharing them with us to improve the accuracy of our information. I owe a debt of gratitude to Mike Kennedy, whose diligent and skillful research discovered much of what I know about Hugh Cowden, and to Michael Pakaluk, who studied under Mr. Cowden and provided even more information about him.

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