AUTHOR’S NOTE: Trouble seemed to find Arlon Elwood “Jackson” Ball — from the time he lost his father to a lightning strike to the intense fighting in which he engaged as a serviceman in World War II, from the death of his younger brother in a traffic accident in 1958 to his own violent death in a North Kenai bar in 1968. But summing up such a life — any life, for that matter — is never easy. There is always, it seems, more to the story.
When the father of Arlon E. “Jackson” Ball died in 1935, the Ball family was living in Westerly, Connecticut. Nearly 90 years later, in May 2022, Westerly’s Veterans Rolls of Honor Memorial Committee announced that it would be adding 86 new names to the city’s war memorial.
Among the 10 World War II additions were the brothers Arlon E. and Robert A. Ball, both of whom had served in combat overseas and were finally receiving the recognition they had been due.
More than a decade earlier, Jackson Ball had received an even more unexpected, posthumous recognition.
In the spring of 2009 in Niantic, Connecticut, a group of East Lyme High School seniors from James Littlefield’s anthropology class stumbled across an unexpected find. They had been searching for archaeological evidence of a 19th century blacksmith shop, but the artifacts they discovered instead sent them in an entirely different direction.
They found an oval medallion depicting Jesus, a roughly 5-by-5-inch brass shield bearing the images of a swastika and a German monument, and a World War II-era sweetheart bracelet. In the months that followed, it would be the bracelet that caused the biggest stir.
Sweetheart bracelets, often purchased or made by soldiers for their love interests back home, were in vogue during the war. The wife or girlfriend of a serviceman would wear her man’s dog-tag information on a sterling silver chain while he was overseas. The bracelet found by East Lyme students bore the name “Arlon E. Ball” and what appeared to be an Army serial number (20155871).
James Littlefield published information about the discovery in a monthly southeastern Connecticut magazine called The Post Road Review. One year later, East Lyme student-journalist Christine Durkee expanded the story of the bracelet in the pages of the East Lyme school newspaper, The Viking Saga.
Durkee’s article, entitled “Silver and Old,” explained that Littlefield had taken the bracelet to the ELHS history department. Teacher Gordon King had been able to confirm that Arlon E. Ball, a resident of New London, Connecticut, in 1930, had been a serviceman and that the number on the bracelet matched his service records.
But, Durkee wrote, that might have been the end of the story if not for Littlefield’s initial article. That essay had attracted the attention of Connecticut resident Margaret Ball, Arlon’s eldest daughter, who said she had known little about her father’s military career. Margaret had been only 9 years old when Arlon was gunned down in North Kenai more than 40 years before.
Margaret did, however, have a photographic portrait of her father in uniform. A study of the badges and pins he wore helped the historians construct a clearer profile of Ball’s five-year stint in the U.S. Army, including the two and a half years he spent fighting overseas.
Sometime after Durkee’s article appeared, Littlefield and Margaret Ball arranged to meet for breakfast and conversation at a Friendly’s Restaurant in Mystic, Connecticut. There, they shared information, and Littlefield presented the daughter with the bracelet, which she then donned for a photograph.
According to Margaret, after her father’s death, her mother and Margaret’s three younger sisters had left their furniture and most of their belongings in Alaska and had returned to their mother’s home state of Connecticut to live. Littlefield said that Margaret remembered her father fondly and had wondered for decades what he had really been like.
“She told me she frequently went online with her sister (Kayleen) to find out about her enigmatic, war-hero father they loved dearly,” Littlefield said. “It sure is amazing how objects dug from the ground can generate such far-reaching energy…. Margaret always thought her father was trying to get in touch with her from the grave, and maybe the discovery we made of this sweetheart bracelet was more than coincidental. She thought so.”
But, although “Margaret could not wait to wear that bracelet on the next Father’s Day,” according to Littlefield, the bracelet — while clearly connected to Arlon Ball — had never belonged to Margaret’s mother, whom Arlon had married nearly 15 years after the war.
The Army-discharge photo of Ball had shown him wearing a wedding ring. And the bracelet, Littlefield said, likely belonged to an earlier bride or some other “sweetheart along the way.” Likely, Ball either gave the bracelet to his sweetheart before shipping overseas for military duty or sent it to her while he was gone.
The bracelet’s connection, if any, to the Jesus medallion and the swastika shield, and the reason for its burial out in Niantic remains a mystery.
James Littlefield also said that Margaret believed that her father was never supposed to have been in Larry’s Club on the night he was killed. To earn money back then, Jackson Ball used his fishing vessel, the Iron Mule, to transport hunters and fishermen to and from various sporting destinations. On the day before he died, she said, he was supposed to take some clients out but had been unable to track down his sidekick, the man who helped him out on the boat.
That man, she said, had a “penchant for the bottle,” so Jackson went looking for him at the bars — and never came home.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: On Dec. 2, 2012, shortly after my original article about the killing of Jackson Ball appeared, I received an email from another of his daughters, Kayleen (Ball) Hanrahan. It began this way: “Today I came upon your article and was utterly surprised at some of your information. I have been searching for many years for any information on my dad, with few answers…. My dad was murdered 44 years ago when I was only four years old. Please contact me as soon as possible.”
In subsequent days, Kayleen and I exchanged a number of emails, and I believe I learned nearly as much from her as she did from me. At one point, she wrote this:
“My dad named me Kayleen. My older sister named her son Arlon. My older sister named her older son’s middle name Jackson, and I named my son’s middle name Elwood after my father’s middle name. I know my father loved my mother and all of his daughters very much.