It was 15 years ago when Pamela Gilliland first bought the hatbox containing 250 World War II letters at an estate sale in Drumright, Okla., for $1.
But it wasn't until a few days later when she actually opened up the box, revealing all the history it contained, that she deemed it priceless.
"It's just crazy because I bought those in a box of junk," Gilliland told GoodMorningAmerica.com. "I wanted the hatbox in an estate auction. When I brought them home 15 years ago, I had seen there was letters in it. I thought, 'Wow, that's pretty cool.' I knew they were from WWII. I read one and I thought, 'This is really personal.'
Knowing how sentimental the letters, written in 1940 to 1946 by two brothers corresponding with their family, must be to the soldiers' long lost relatives, Gilliland has made it her mission to return them to their rightful owner.
The two men who penned them, Eural and Robert Harvill, were apparently writing home to Mr. and Mrs. E.H. Harvill, Box 7, Drumright, Okla., from different training camps across the United States where they were stationed.
When Gilliland, 53, of Mannford, Okla., originally tried contacting someone with the last name Harvill in Drumright 15 years ago, she never received a response, and eventually let it fall by the wayside.
"So I put the box in front of the TV as a decoration, and that went on for two or three years," Gilliland explained. "Then I just stuck them on the top of the closet. But I couldn't throw them away. I'm a patriotic person. My husband is a Vietnam vet so I couldn't throw them away."
A few years passed, until one day when Gilliland was reading the paper, she came across an article about Doug Eaton, author of a self-published book called, " Letters from Walter: A Personal Look at World War II Through the Eyes of a Young Solider," which sounded like an all-too-familiar tale to her hatbox letters dilemma.
Gilliland immediately reached out to Eaton, a history buff, who was thrilled to help her with the project. He began reading the letters one by one, putting together clues from the soldiers, one of whom was in the military band, as Eaton discovered by a detailed training schedule uncovered in the hatbox.
"I've come across some more photos, a telegram and newsletters from the army camps," said Eaton. "And I also came across a detailed training schedule from January 18, 1943, for one of the soldiers from Camp Gruber, Okla. It's a detailed training schedule for the whole week. Apparently one of these guys played in the military band. Some of the topics they're talking about are from 9:30 to 12 noon is band rehearsal, and then they set up for the performance."
Eaton has made significant progress tracking down the Harvill family with the help of many local Drumright, Okla., residents, who have become fascinated with the hidden history lesson these letters contain.
"I think we're getting close," said Eaton. "I've heard from a distant relative of the people involved. I want to say a fourth cousin, and I've enlisted him to help. I think he's identified a possible son and maybe even a sister. I know how important it is to family members to get these."
And Gilliland, who has always understood how important the letters are, couldn't be more pleased with the progress Eaton is making to eventually get these long lost letters back to their home.
"I think it's really great," Gilliland said. "It's just dear to my heart. I love the veterans. We owe them everything. We have to honor them in any way we can. I just couldn't throw them away."