SCOTTSBLUFF — Nancy Blankenship knew very little about her father. She was less than 3 years old and had only spent about eight months with him before he was killed in action in France, just prior to the end of World War II in Europe.
An aspiring artist, Marvin Blankenship had been accepted to study at the Baltimore School of Art before he was called up by Uncle Sam in 1943. During his time in the U.S. Army, Marvin was diligent about sending letters, sketches and trinkets to his wife Wilma back in Scottsbluff.
It was through those mementos, along with letters from the War Department, that Nancy would later learn about her father.
Born in Scottsbluff, Marvin spent most of his youth in the Torrington and Lyman area. After graduation, he returned to Scottsbluff to work at Cox Lumber. He was 20 years old when he was drafted in 1943. By that time, he had a fiancée, Wilma Busacker.
Marvin was sent to Camp Blanding, Florida for basic training. Wilma joined him there in June of 1943, where they were married in one of the many chapels on the base.
Before Marvin was transferred to Camp Robinson in Little Rock, Arkansas, Wilma and new daughter Nancy were able to travel back to Florida to spend some time with him.
Shipped to Europe from New York, Marvin had time to send many letters home, along with sketches of the countryside their ship passed on the way to Italy. Mount Etna, an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, an Italian monastery, and later his new home (a tent) became subjects for his art.
Landing at Anzio Beachhead in Italy, the 36th Infantry Division, including Staff Sergeant Marvin Blankenship, marched north through Italy and into France, engaging in several battles against Nazi forces along the way.
The war ended for Marvin on March 13, 1945, at the Battle of Haguenau, near Strasbourg, France, near the border with Germany. Originally listed as missing, Marvin was reported dead 12 days later.
“Your husband was performing his duties as squad leader during an attack on an enemy position, when he was fatally hit,” said a letter from a War Department chaplain to Wilma in Scottsbluff. “Heavy tank fire delayed the advance of the squad, and he was struck by an enemy shell fragment.”
During his service, Marvin was awarded two Purple Hearts and two Silver Stars.
The fallen were originally buried in France, but in 1946, family members were given the option to have the war dead transferred home at the Army’s expense. Arrangements weren’t completed until 1949, but Marvin is now buried in West Lawn Cemetery in Gering.
“Two of my aunts were very good about sharing things about what was going on and what they saw during the war,” Nancy said. “My mother had all of the letters, sketches and other mementos saved in the pump room in the basement.”
Nancy said her mother had kept the material hidden for more than 60 years because she remarried about a year later. “My stepfather was a jealous man and my mother couldn’t talk about it,” she said. “He wouldn’t let me see my dad’s parents who lived here at the time. As an adult, I just think of how cruel that was.”
Nancy and her husband, Doug Berry, are back in Scottsbluff after living in several states. Doug was with the Ford Motor Company, while Nancy was a teacher, school administrator and a school district student achievement specialist. Their two sons, who both live in Connecticut, have careers in the military and in law enforcement.
The couple was living in California when Wilma sold the house and moved into an assisted living facility. So Nancy came into possession of her father’s effects. She quickly had copies and later digital scans made until she figured out how to share them with her two sons and six grandchildren.
Those pictures, as well as information from extensive research, went into Nancy’s book on her father’s life, “Green Shutters and a White Picket Fence.”
Her need to tell his story and leave a legacy for future generations didn’t end there. In 2018, Nancy had the opportunity, along with her stepsister, to follow the path taken by her father’s division during World War II, from the shores of Africa, into the Mediterranean, to Anzio Beachhead in Italy and north to Rome.
“My goal was to get as many photographs as I could of what he had sketched,” Nancy said. “I figured out he had the most time to sketch just after they arrived in Italy and before they headed north into battle. Once they got through Rome, my mother got fewer letters and no new sketches.”
Nancy is planning another trip in 2020. This one will take her along the northern route from New York through the Straits of Gibraltar and on to France and Spain, again ending up in Rome.
Through all the research and the trip to Europe, Nancy said she now has a better understanding of her father and his place in a time of war.
“I can better accept my loss, but will always mourn the Dad who didn’t come home to buy that ‘five room house with green shutters and a white picket fence’ that he had promised my mother.”
Along the way, she’s also learned the importance for everyone to tell their story and leave a legacy that will be carried on by future generations.
“My father, Marvin Blankenship, was one of many who gave their life for our country,” Nancy said. “When the opportunity arises, please, always thank those who came home and always remember those who didn’t.”