Tom Barton: Epic love that survived World War II, saved from the dumpster

Their epic love story survived jump school, World War II, the armies of the Third Reich, and the U.S. military censors who seemed to read every letter that went across the Atlantic between France and Georgia.

 

But it almost didn’t survive a bout of 2017 summer housekeeping. In fact, if not for a sharp-eyed roofer and a former standout baseball player from Savannah, Carroll Minick, the love story of Jimmie and Betty would today be resting in the bottom of a local landfill.

Minick, who appreciates history as much as he appreciates a well-turned double play or a leakproof roof with tight shingles, said he was doing a job in the Ardsley Park area recently when he noticed a man about to toss a shoebox-sized box into a dumpster. It piqued Minick’s curiosity. Upon closer inspection, Minick discovered that what the man was junking was a box full of several dozen love letters, about a dozen World War II era military patches and ribbons, a large colorful silk keepsake with the words “U.S. Army Paratroops Fort Benning, Ga” and words to a poem “To My Wife” printed on it and a smaller green handkerchief with U.S. Paratroop stitched on it, a small photo of an attractive brunette wearing a scarf around her neck and perhaps the most remarkable item — a leather chinstrap for a helmet inked with the words, “Hope I make it Jimmie.”

The good news is that he apparently did.

Minick asked if he could salvage all this memorabilia, with an eye on donating it to a worthy group involved in preserving history. Fortunately, the man agreed. As Minick started going through it, he discovered it was a treasure trove of personal information about two people — a man and woman, soon to become husband and wife, who were separated by great distances during war time in that prehistoric era without the internet or cellphones and where the main form of long-distance communication was old school — the humble pen, paper, envelope and a 6-cent Air Mail stamp.

What Minick saved was a remarkable story of two people who seemed to be madly in love and were determined to maintain, if not improve upon, their relationship despite odds that today would seem overwhelming.

Today, people are easily annoyed when their cellphone service is disrupted for a half-second, their internet service goes down or when their cellphone runs out of juice. Nerves are frayed. Relationships are soured. But those hardships are miniscule compared to waiting on an irregular mail call, getting shot or yelled at, or wondering if you’ll ever see your husband or wife again.

Minick was kind enough to share the contents of the box. It sort of made me feel like a peeping Tom, like I might be invading someone’s privacy or personal space. But after pulling out and reading some of the letters from the musty-smelling box (take my word for it, age has its own odor and it’s not pleasant) I gained a new respect and admiration for the men and women who really did make America great back in the 1940s and beyond.

And it’s not just for their military achievements, which were awesome. It’s also for their efforts at keeping their lives, their sanity and their relationships intact during what had to be a period of hardship and sheer terror of the unknown.

Their full names are not important. But their efforts to keep things together and keep love alive were significant and inspirational.

The letters that were sent back to Georgia from places like Fort Bragg, Camp Mackall, N.C., and unknown parts of France typically began with the salutation, “Dearest Darling Wife,” and later with, “Dearest Darling Wife and Son.”

They typically ended with the send-off “Love Forever” and later, “”Your Hubby, Jimmie Daddy.”

But strangely, the letters were not overly goopy or gushy or sugary. Some were matter of fact or even boring recitations of the daily grind. When you are writing after a hard day of jump school and learning how to be a paratrooper, or slogging across France fighting enemy hostiles, probably the last thing on your mind is sounding like a Hallmark card.

Homesickness was a recurring theme: “I don’t know any definite day dear that we may go home but the way rumors go it shouldn’t be long,” went a letter sent from France in June 1945, about a year after D-Day. Jimmie would add, “Honey girl I love you with all my heart and soul.”

In that same sweet missive, he admitted to being hot, dirty and annoyed — with the French for some reason. ”I’m sorry if I seem mean, but I’ve got all I can stand of these French people. I do believe we fought the wrong people sometimes.”

Most of the letters were postmarked during 1944 and 1945. Most of the envelopes bore a stamp that declared that the contents were “Passed by the U.S. Army Examiner,” proving that the deterioration of Franco-American relations was not a military secret.

Neither was the threat of other male suitors at home, as another missive from 1945 had this friendly sounding warning, “Tell Rando to behave honey and I’ll get him a girlfriend when I get home.”

Minick played baseball for the University of Georgia and is enshrined in the Greater Savannah Athletic Hall of Fame. But saving this box of World War II history for future generations may be his slickest fielding play or save.

 

Tom Barton is the editorial page editor of the Savannah Morning News. tom.barton@savannahnow.com

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