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Button, button who's got the button?

James Rada, Jr.

When most people hear the words, "Iwo Jima," they picture the historic photograph of U.S. Marines working to raise the country's flag. For Helen Mackley, the words conjure up the image of a small button with a Japanese insignia on it.

Mackley's uncle, Roger Holdcraft, was part of the American invasion force that fought to wrest control of the island from the Japanese.

He was part of the Navy Seabees who were in charge of building the airfields as the Marines took the land. His group had been told to stay in their foxhole and keep their head downs.

The waiting got to be too much for Holdcraft and he peeked over the edge of the foxhole. He looked up in time to see a Japanese soldier throw a hand grenade into the foxhole. Holdcraft caught it and threw it back at the soldier.

"The officer was blown to bits," Mackley said. "This button's all that was left of him."

Holdcraft sent the button to his sister, Ruth Holdcraft Mackley. She added the button to her collection and her brother's experience became one of the many stories behind the buttons in her collection. Ruth Mackley collected buttons from the 1940s to the early 1960s.

"She loved buttons from when she was a little girl," said Helen Mackley.

Ruth Mackley collected buttons from various places, including through correspondence with other collectors she met through a button-collecting magazine. She would organize the buttons into themes and create displays that she stored in empty carbon-paper boxes (which are nearly as antique as some of the buttons). Helen Mackley inherited about 100 boxes when her mother died in 1968.

One box contains part of a string of buttons Delia Beard had collected. Collecting buttons on a string was a popular fad from 1830-1870.

"A young girl collected buttons on a string, and when you had collected your 1,000th button, they said you would meet your future husband," Helen Mackley said.

Another box holds buttons designed to look like calico fabric. They were made during a period when dressmakers wanted to have the buttons blend into the fabric.

One box holds buttons from Hungary. During a clothing drive for people overseas, Ruth Mackley had donated a winter coat and placed her name and address in the pocket. The woman who received the coat began a correspondence with Ruth Mackley and eventually sent her buttons.

"I still keep in touch with this lady," Helen Mackley said. "I'll write her at Christmas time and let her know what is happening with the family. She's getting very up in years."

Mackley's collection contains buttons from countries like Poland, Canada, Austria, England and Korea. Some buttons date back to the early 1800s. Some are elaborate depictions of fairy tales or contain butterflies. Others are simpler, such as those that show baby faces.

Many have stories Ruth Mackley researched and wrote down, and it's through those stories that Helen remembers her mother so well.