By Nancy Bunker Bowen
Brats certainly have had experiences that others will never know…as I read about the brave gendarme in France who traded himself for the hostage in the terrorist attack in southern France, I learned he was stationed in nearby Carcassonne…which reminded me of this true story.
Years ago, when we were stationed in France, my family toured the medieval fortress at Carcassonne. Afterward, my father got lost on the lower town’s narrow streets and began driving our Buick the wrong way down a one-way street. A gendarme blew his whistle and ambled toward our car, Dad cursing under his breath. In the most bored tone of voice ever (stupid Americans!) he asked, “ou allez vous, monsieur?” My mother instantly leaned toward the driver’s side of the car and asked, brightly, “oooh, nous cherchons un bon restaurant!” Ah. Now THAT was different….the gendarme reeled off the name of his favorite bistro, stopped traffic, got us turned around, and wished us bon appetit… No ticket, but a great lunch and a greater memory.
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Circe Olson Woessner
Earlier this month, I posted on Facebook: “I’m writing about love and how our military parents met…any good stories?”
Hundreds of replies later, I had enough material to write a thick book…or at least, a couple of columns.
Some parents, like Stevie’s were high school sweethearts. Her parents grew up together in a prairie farming town. She says, “My dad left home at 17 to join the Army. He came home for a visit; then two months later, had to come home again to marry my mom, because I was born seven months later.”
Carmon says, “My parents met at a ball game. My dad was throwing popcorn in her hair. They married 9 days before he was sent to basic for Vietnam.”
Blind Dates seemed to be a popular way to meet….
Cheri says, “My parents met on a blind date while my dad was a cadet at West Point. It was love at first sight! They married the day after his graduation and were together for 63 years before he passed away.”
Cathie agrees, “My dad was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. He and my mom were fixed up on a blind date on St. Patrick’s Day in 1955. He proposed six weeks later and they married Labor Day weekend.”
Victoria’s parents were supposed to go on a blind date, but on the day, her mother was “sick as a dog”, so they sat on the couch and talked. He went home and told his mother he found the woman he was going to marry. It took him three years to convince his future bride of that, but he finally did it.
Some romances were destined…
Noreen recalls, “My dad was home on leave after WWII at a bar with his brother. My mother and her sister walked in. He looked at his brother and said, ‘see that shorter girl that just walked in, I’m going to marry her!” At the same time, my mom said to her sister, ‘See that guy in uniform? I’m going to marry him!” They met, married, had 7 children and stayed married until their deaths.”
Kelly says, “My Papa was home on leave and went to the local VFW dance. He was slightly inebriated. His cousin was there with one of Papa’s exes and was afraid he would want to fight, so he grabbed Mama’s arm as she went by and introduced them. Papa proposed that night (like I said he was drinking). I believe they knew each other about three months before they eloped.”
Joyous says, “My dad was Army Air Corps. He was in Nashville for a visit in 1943. My mom lived in Nashville and was about to go into the Grand Ole Opry when dad saw her and said “Hello Blondie!” My mom replied, “Hi there, Dagwood”. That was it. They sat together and were married a few weeks later.”
Sometimes things were downright embarrassing!
Mary explains, “When my dad, a handsome Army Air Corps B17 pilot came home on leave, my uncles arranged for my mother to bake him his favorite cake– angel food. Dad went to her house to thank her. She answered the door in her bathrobe and curlers. He said, ‘she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen!’”
Jacquie’s father worked at a movie theater part-time while stationed at Ft. Snelling, and her mother was a cashier. They met because he was on the floor tacking down loose carpet and her mother tripped over him.
Some parents, literally, met by accident.
Olive recalls, “My father was stationed in England. He had an accident that shattered his skull among other serious injuries. My mother was a nurse at the hospital where he was treated.”
Sam says, “My dad tripped a land mine during the Battle of the Bulge and wound up as a patient on the ward where my mother worked as an Army nurse. Months later, after he had returned to duty, they were married … twice. Occupied Germany had no legal government yet, so the religious ceremony was held there, with a civil ceremony held in the Netherlands. Their honeymoon was a weekend pass in Copenhagen.”
Some marriages came with a “ready-made family” as Renee explains, “My dad was a Senior Airman at MacDill AFB. He met my mother at the Steak & Shake by the gate. She was pregnant with my sister. He married my mom and became step-father to two of my oldest sisters and adopted the one my mom was pregnant with.”
Many a service member has met the love of his life overseas.
Nancy’s parents met in Rio de Janeiro at an Embassy party. He was a dashing American pilot; she was a tiny Brazilian socialite. In 1945, they courted with chaperones in tow.
My friend Lori shares this story, “My parents met at a bar in Heidelberg where my dad was stationed. He’d been eyeing this attractive woman, but he didn’t make the first move. That fun-loving woman was my mom, a refugee from East Germany who’d landed in Heidelberg.
Though she couldn’t speak much English, that didn’t stop her from approaching the good-looking American soldier, taking his military hat and placing it upon her head and singing, ‘I’m just a lonely girl. Lonely and blue. I’m all alone, wiss nussing to do.’”
That was the start of a lifelong love story. But not all romances went smoothly, as Kim recalls.
“My Mom was a young German girl and my Dad was stationed near her town. His parents wouldn’t give permission for him to marry her since they hadn’t met her, so they had to wait until he turned 21.”
Sue’s friend was almost 18 and because her husband-to-be was not yet 21, he needed his mother’s permission to marry. Initially, she wouldn’t give permission, but finally did. They got married, and tragically, he was killed in Vietnam 11 months later.
For at least one couple, tragedy turned into true love.
Karen’s mother was married to an Army pilot whose plane was shot down in Korea. The Officer on Duty who came with the chaplain to break the news of the death of her husband, fell in love with her and they later married.
True love lasts forever as Rae knows, “Daddy had advanced stage colon cancer. His surgery was on my parents’ 31st anniversary. After the surgery, the nurse asked him what day it was and, in his groggy state, he said, “Our anniversary.” The nurse asked him a couple more times…same response. A look over at my tearful Mom, the nurse said “Yep. He’s got his senses.” It was the last anniversary my parents would share because he passed away two months later…”
It’s tough being married in the military. It’s nice to hear the love stories and successes of military couples who have beaten the odds. Jan says it best, “Mom’s name was Joy Wright. Dad always said he married the girl next door– she was the ‘wright girl for him, and filled his life with joy’. ”
There are three great movies that I think are well worth watching, even though they are filmed in black and white. For me, they don’t make movies like this anymore. They are: “This Land is Mine” (1944), “The Seventh Cross” (1943), and “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). These three are some of my most favorite movies.
Each deals with deeply divided human emotions, overcoming extreme adversity, man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man, and the basic will to consciously or subconsciously do what is right; even in the face of extreme hardship. Perhaps a major reason I enjoy viewing these movies is they transport me back to another era and time, of memories of my mother; of how her life must have been like in pre-and post-war Germany, and of how she had to survive during that horrific period of time.
Each of these movie’s primarily focus is from the adult’s sufferings, their actions or in-actions and how they eventually overcome tragedy and adversities. However, they fail to take into account the children; they also were part of that era and they too suffered; albeit in much different ways.
When I view these films, each one invariably leads me to view them from what my mother’s point of view may have been, from when she was a child growing up during a tragic period in time. The films were in black and white however my mother’s vision was very colorful to me.
She is now long gone to a better place – but her influence, her emotions, her stories, reside as strong in me as they did when I first heard them. I remember her life was not easy, but she strived to make sure ours was!
My mother was born in Germany during the winter of 1932. During this era, her homeland was undergoing a great transformation. A new leader had been promising the Germans change: jobs, food, anything to make the German people believe and robotically “fall-into-line”. She told us one of her early memories were of seeing posters depicting adults talking and asking one another, (?) “What does Adolf Hitler want? (answer) Freedom and food for every decent working German!”. This was an actual poster slogan; she remembered this one very vividly! She reminded us of the thought of more food as something she particularly liked when she saw this poster.
For a time, this leader was actually delivering on his promises. Food was not plentiful for all, but there was food available as well as work. Germans were finding work by participating on government works projects; one such project was to construct the best road system known in the world, at least up until that time. The Autobahn, or Reichsautobahn (Freeway of the Reich) continued into 1930’s and it gave jobs to thousands. It was a make-work program; but the road program also had a sinister plot. the highway was built primarily to move the troops and equipment around faster for the eventual war that was to come. Remember, few Germans had cars. After the war, President Eisenhower even understood the importance of infrastructure when he began building America’s “National Highway System”. An interesting requirement of our own roads was to have sections within them to be straight and wide for several miles. This was to allow military aircraft an emergency “runway”, in case of war!
My mother often shared her own experiences and the thoughts she had of the Germany she knew in the 1930’s and 40’s and into the 1950’s, with me and my brother. Some of her thoughts and ideals, expressed within those stories I could not even begin to truly imagine or truly visualize as a child. It was not until much later in life when things began to clear up for me and make more sense.
Both my brother and I were often a major focus of her stories. As a post-war child of the early 1950’s, I have many early memories of walking on ice cold wooden floors in the mornings, watching the coals glowing in the wood stove, crawling into a toasty bed at night with a warm water bottle near our feet, blankets and pillows several feet thick, and morning breakfasts of merely bread and milk (that is when she had them). As a child, even during that bleak period of time, I thought we were rich. It was my early perception of life, but that perception was far from the truth. I would learn the truth much later in life. I cannot begin to imagine what she must have given up just to ensure the two of us had enough to eat.
In the late 1960s, we revisited Germany and she was able to show me where some of those stories actually were played out – as if from a movie, they came alive to me.
One story I remember her telling me was when she and her brothers and sisters had actually cut down a telephone pole deep in woods to use for fuel in their stove. She told us they had no coal or much of anything else to use for fuel to heat the house or cook food. The war was now in full force and its effects were devastating. Everyone in the neighborhood was in need of food, wood or coal. She didn’t say who came up with the idea, but at age 8, (knowing my mother as I did, I had my suspicions. She and her older sister and brother got their younger siblings to help them cut the pole down, tie a rope around it and then they all managed to drag it home. She remembers how proud they were to have accomplished this task. (Leave it to Beaver was not yet a television program, so her parents were not as prepared to give advice or guidance as Ward and June Cleaver often did. Remember, my mother’s parents were also not as affluent). So…they used the wood! They were found out by the Jägermeister (not the well-known popular German drink, rather a Senior Forest Supervisor) who was able to track them to the house by following the trail they made dragging the pole behind them.
All other stories she told would touch us one way or another. Some would bring tears to our eyes or make us laugh together, all would eventually fill my mind in later years, and still fill my mind. Perhaps, by her telling us of her earlier childhood years and life, she hoped that wouldn’t let us take our life for granted. Maybe it was to remember her! Now, I will never know…! Who wouldn’t want just five-more-minutes to get to talk to their mother? I’m sure of one thing, as she told us the stories she would remember and re-live them herself. I could tell by looking into her eyes. I still often think of her life and what she must have had to endure during those hard times. Now, I can only imagine.
Last December the world lost a very special person, Florence Ebersole Smith Finch, (101).
Florence Ebersole Smith Finch, USCGR
Coast Guard SPAR decorated for combat operations during World War II
By William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.
U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian
Of the thousands of women who have served with honor in the United States Coast Guard, one stands out for her bravery and devotion to duty. Florence Smith Finch, the daughter of a U.S. Army veteran and Filipino mother, was born on the island of Luzon, north of Manila, in Santiago City. She married navy PT boat crewman Charles E. Smith while working for an army intelligence unit located in Manila. In 1942, after the Japanese invaded the Philippines, her young husband died trying to re-supply American and Filipino troops trapped by the enemy on Corregidor Island and the Bataan Peninsula.
After the Japanese occupied Manila, Finch avoided internment by…
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