When World War II dawned in September of 1939, few could have foreseen the devastation of the next six years. But even in the midst of such grand-scale horror—the worst in human history—not all was completely lost. Despite everything, love could still be found in glances across rooms, chance encounters on the street, and in letters sent and received. During the World War II era, young men and women dove headlong into romance—committing to futures that were all but certain. While their courtships and weddings may seem rushed compared to our modern standards, their unions would last far beyond the victory celebrations of D-Day.
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In War Bonds, author Cindy Hval highlights couples who dared to dream, hope, and love in a time when dreaming was foolish, hope was draining, and hate had divided the world. Below, you'll find two stories about husbands and wives who, just as everything was falling apart, somehow managed to come—and stay—together.
Read on for an excerpt from War Bonds, and then download the book.
A SEAT NEXT TO YOU
A sophisticated Long Island gal met a boy from Detroit, in Indiana of all places, and launched a relationship that spanned seven decades—all thanks to a small slip of paper, drawn from a basket.
Walter Stewart and Laura Versfelt met at Fort Wayne Bible Institute in 1940. Each month, students drew scraps of paper with a table and seat number written on it to find out where they’d sit for meals in the dining room. “Lo and behold, after a few months, Walter was assigned to my table,” recalled Laura. He made quite an impression. “He pulled my chair out for me. Most of the boys were farm boys, but Walter was from Detroit—he was a city boy,” she said.
She’d had plenty of opportunities to observe the handsome young man. Walter led songs during their weekly services. “Each Friday night, he dressed up.”
Walter found his feisty tablemate intriguing. “The other guys were scared of this girl from New York,” he said. “So they dared me to ask her out, and I did! We walked down to the park and back—a 45-minute date.” But in those 45 minutes, he found a way to impress the city girl. “He knew the name of every bird we saw!” Laura said. While she didn’t share his knowledge of ornithology, she was a singer and shared his passion for music.
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“She was soloist, and music was a specialty of mine so we had something in common,” Walter said. With a big concert approaching, he borrowed a car and asked Laura if she’d like to go with him. She agreed. Seventy years later, in their cozy living room, he stole a glance at her. “That was the first time you kissed me,” he said.
“No! No! You rascal, you!” Laura said, laughing as she pushed at his shoulder.
Walter shrugged. Then he grinned and proceeded to tell the real story of their first kiss. “I kissed her in the hallway after a music lesson,” he admitted. “I kissed her so hard you could hear it down the hall! SMACK!”
Though he said they were too poor to marry, he proposed anyway. When the school year drew to a close, she went home to Long Island and he traveled back to Detroit, but their separation didn’t last long. “I bought a diamond ring for her and hitchhiked all the way to Long Island to give it to her. She was surprised to see me because she’d just written that it wouldn’t be a good time to visit.” He chuckled. “It’s a good thing I left before that letter came!”
They both found employment in aircraft factories in Long Island, and when her mother realized Walter wasn’t just another boyfriend, she gave her blessing and they plunged into wedding plans.
In June 1941, they married in Garden City Park on Long Island. Laura laughed when she recalled what transpired after the ceremony. “We sang together at the wedding reception and when we thought no one was looking, we snuck out through the kitchen and made our getaway.”
But they weren’t stealthy enough and soon found themselves followed by a caravan of cars. Walter’s friends “kidnapped” him and treated him to ice cream before releasing him to his bride. Laura wasn’t thrilled by the chain of events, but the experience later came in handy. “As a pastor’s wife, I’ve told many a bride, whatever happens, just roll with it,” she said.
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They settled into married life and eagerly anticipated the birth of their first child, when tragedy struck. The baby died at birth. As Laura woke from the anesthesia, she said, “I heard a baby cry, then the doctor said, ‘I’m sorry.’”
The loss was especially hard, as Walter had enlisted in the Navy and was soon to be shipped out. As he processed the loss of their child, he said, “I sat at the aircraft factory and cried like a baby. You plan for nine months and then it’s just gone. It was a little girl.” As he spoke, Laura looked at him, astonished. “You never told me that,” she said. “You never told me you cried.” He shrugged and looked away. The memory of that long-ago loss still hurts.
War doesn’t wait for grief, and in December of 1943, Walter was sent to Hawaii and then on to Guam. “I didn’t want to leave her—I was worried about her health.” However, he found new concerns in the South Pacific. Walter has never forgotten the things he saw, though he often wishes he could. “Shot up, devastated, rotting corpses—the smell was horrible. It was like a horror movie when we got there.”
Laura said, “I’ll bet there are stories I never did hear.”
Walter served two and half years. “That was enough for me,” he said. “I couldn’t wait to get home.”
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Laura was waiting for him. “I can still see him in that little white sailor hat,” she recalled. No band played as he walked toward her, but after being apart for two years, just the sight of him proved more exciting than a ticker tape parade. That isn’t to say their reunion went smoothly. Like many couples separated by the war, the Stewarts had to readjust to life together. “It felt strange at first,” she said. I’d gotten used to being on my own.”
Laura had a good job that paid the bills and had her own way of doing things. She smiled, “He found out his wife had become a little independent.” Walter took the changes in stride, but eventually said, “We need to talk this over!” And talk they did. Their deep love for each other and their shared faith helped ease the transition.
The G.I. Bill enabled Walter to attend Gordon College in Boston. Sadly, as he pursued his ministerial degree, Laura lost another baby. This time it was a boy. “I carried him almost six months,” she said. “After the second baby, I was through. I didn’t want any children.” And Walter? As he packed away the unused baby clothes in a cedar chest, he wept, dampening the tiny outfits with his tears. Shaking her head with the memory, Laura said, “I don’t understand how couples break up at a time like that—we needed each other so.”
Following graduation in 1948, they moved west and pastored churches in the Portland, Oregon area, where Walter enrolled in seminary. He hadn’t given up his dream of being a father. “I broached the subject of having another baby,” he said.
“It didn’t go well. “If I’d had a gun, I would have shot him,” Laura said. She still felt raw from the loss of her first two babies. But one year after that conversation she gave birth to a daughter, Roberta Joy. Five years later at the age of 42, she found out she was expecting again. “I told the doctor, if I’m pregnant it’s a miracle. The doctor replied, “Well, I found a miracle and it’s a good-sized one!” Their daughter Laurie completed their family in 1959.
After raising their daughters and serving in many churches, the couple retired to Desert Hot Springs, California before eventually moving to the Pacific Northwest to be near their younger daughter.
The Stewarts credit their faith in God for their lasting marriage, and Laura’s eyes still sparkle when she talks about her husband. “I knew in my heart that the love we had for one another was something you don’t find in many marriages,” she said. “Walter’s always had a heart for his family and he’s been the one to forgive and forget. I’ve been a tough egg to crack, but I’ve softened over the years.”
And Walter is still thankful for that slip of paper that seated him at her table so long ago. His voice grew husky as he recounted their life together. He said, “She’s what I needed to fill in the blanks.”
Walter Stewart died March 23, 2013.
THE MARINE AND THE SAILOR
Walt Powers never thought he’d fall in love with a Marine, but that’s just what happened to him 71 years ago at Marine Corps Air Station Santa Barbara.
Walt was from Texas and had been drafted into the Navy, leaving home on Christmas Day, 1943. He first glimpsed Myrt Mueller at a reception following a change of command ceremony at the base. She was carrying a large decorated cake. “Excuse me,” she said. As he stood aside to let her pass, Walt was instantly smitten. “I thought she was the most beautiful Marine I’d even seen!”
Myrt, 21, had been teaching school in Oregon when World War II began. “I had these kids coming in saying, ‘My daddy’s going to war and I don’t know if he’s going to be killed.’” She shook her head. “I couldn’t take it. I joined the Marines in 1943—I wanted to take care of my students’ dads.” However, she ended up teaching Marines about airplane maintenance. Walt laughed. “When they found out she didn’t know the difference between a spark plug and a generator, they moved her to the dispensary.”
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She was working as dietician and Walt was a Navy surgical technician when their paths crossed that fateful afternoon. He tracked her down the next day and asked her to go on a bike ride on Sunday. When she told him she’d be happy to but only after she went to church, he knew he’d found a “good” girl. He also knew this because he’d used his job to check her health records. He grinned at the memory. “She was clean!”
Their first date proved unintentionally memorable. In his enthusiasm to get closer to Myrt, Walt crashed his bicycle into hers. Undaunted, he used the opportunity to show off his medical expertise. He took her to the clinic to treat her scrapes. “I used my skill to bandage her arm,” he recalled. “And when I got to her knee, I held her leg!”
A bold move indeed, for 1945. Walt worried that she wouldn’t go out with him again after the bicycle mishap, but Myrt liked him. “He was a handsome sailor,” she said, smiling. One evening they decided to stroll out to the rifle range. “We saw an MP in a jeep coming,” recalled Walt. “We worried that we weren’t supposed to be there.” The couple ran and hid in the latrine. Walt laughed. “It was a very small latrine!”
However, their adventures were suspended when Walt shipped out to Guam, a move that surprised them both since by this time the war was over. Instead of returning to his family in Texas, Walt said, “I became part of the occupation force of Japan and spent time in China, as well.” For nine months their only connection came through the mail, and those letters fostered a deep and lasting bond. “We kind of fell in love through letters,” Walt said.
Myrt nodded. “I saved all 87 of his letters.” She paused and shot him a look. “But he pitched mine.” Still, Walt thought of her constantly, especially when he earned enough points to get out of the Navy. “I was so much in love with her; I wanted to see her immediately.” Instead of getting discharged back to Texas, he asked the yeoman to print up orders for Oregon, where Myrt had returned to finish college after completing her military service.
During the long journey to Oregon, Walt worried. He wondered, “Is she going to kiss me the same way she did when I left? Has she found another boyfriend?”
When Walt arrived at the train station at 6 AM in May 1946, he found Myrt waiting. “She was wearing a beautiful blue suit and hat, and I gave her a kiss like you do when you’re returning from war …” He paused and smiled across the room at Myrt. “All doubts were immediately gone.” He left for Texas to see his family, but not before securing her promise to become his wife. After he arrived home, he sent her an engagement ring in the mail. “I paid $287 for it at Zales—I still have the receipt.”
Myrt had signed a contract to teach school in Eugene, and Walt resumed his education at Baylor University. But he couldn’t stand the separation, so he persuaded her to join him at Baylor to get her Master’s degree.
By December, their friends were tired of waiting for a wedding. “We were both working at a church, so we asked the pastor to marry us,” Walt said. And he did that very day, December 13, 1946. Their friends sprang for a night at a hotel and the next day they got up and went to class. The couple found a room to rent with kitchen privileges, and Myrt earned her master’s. When she received a lucrative job offer to teach in McMinnville, Oregon, Walt transferred to Linfield College and they returned to Oregon.
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In November 1948, their son Wally was born. The following year Walt graduated with a chemistry degree and looked for a job as a chemist. He couldn’t find one, but he did find a job as a substitute teacher and fell in love with education. The family moved to Colorado where Walt earned his master’s Degree. Their family grew with the arrival of Jim in 1951, followed by Thomas in 1954. Walt became a high school principal and continued his schooling at night, eventually receiving his doctorate. “I always wanted to be a doctor,” he joked.
In 1954, Walt joined the faculty at Eastern Washington University as assistant professor of psychology and education, and taught there for more than 40 years. Myrt resumed her teaching career at a nearby elementary school. Soon they built a home just two blocks from the college campus. Since then the university has grown up around the house.
Walt’s expertise in the area of high school counseling brought the family many opportunities. From 1961–1962 they lived in Korea, where Walt worked as an advisor to the minister of education. Their sons relished the adventure of living overseas.
In 1966, the adventure continued when Walt was invited to establish a counselor training program at Keele University in England. “Our boys went to an Edwardian type school and wore suits and ties,” Myrt said. The couple has traveled the world both for work and pleasure, from Russia to South Africa and beyond. They currently spend the winter months in Hawaii.
In 2011, Eastern Washington University dedicated the Walter and Myrtle Powers Reading Room in the former Hargraves library, to honor the couple’s longstanding commitment to education.
Sadly, they’ve survived two of their sons. Wally died nine years ago from multiple sclerosis and two years after that, Jim had a sudden heart attack and passed away. The couple feels fortunate that their son Tom and his four children live nearby.
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Walt and Myrt Powers have spent their lives educating others, and their 68-year-union offers them yet another educational platform. “We kiss every night and we laugh at each other a lot,” said Walt. “She lives in the present, not the future.”
Myrt laughed. “Or the past!”
Like many long-married couples, their shared years have blurred the differences they once had. “We’re so much alike now that 50% of the time we are thinking about the same thing!” said Myrt. They’ve learned to give each other their own space and say they rarely argue. Perhaps that’s due to a unique strategy. “Every two years, I’m allowed to tell him to shut up,” Myrt said. “And I can say it as loudly and clearly as I wish!”
Want to keep reading? Download War Bonds, by Cindy Hval.
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Featured photo: Wikipedia