Wartime letters shed light on couple's love affair during World War II

Their son, who lives in Ocean City, writes book

December 24, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

More than 1,000 letters that Vincent dePaul Gisriel Sr., a World War II B-17 Flying Fortress bombardier, and Martha Owens, whom he married in 1943, wrote to one another during World War II were stored in a box in a daughter's attic, where they remained unread for nearly 60 years.

Martha died in 1977, and her beloved Vince in 2003.

It was after his father's death that a son, Vincent dePaul Gisriel Jr., remembered the letters. He was seeking more knowledge about his father's wartime service flying with the 8th Air Force, based in England, on bombing runs over Germany. He ended up writing "Hearts Away, Bombs Away," about his parents, who had lived in Baltimore. The book was recently published.

"When I began to think about writing this story, I was somewhat troubled by the thought that I would be focusing primarily on my father, Vince," Gisriel, who lives in Ocean City, explained in the book's introduction.

"I felt concerned that I had never even thought about writing about my mother, Martha. However, when I started researching dad's life, particularly about his service in the Army Air Corps, I realized how interwoven my dad's life was with my mom's during the war years," he wrote.

Gisriel was warned by an uncle, also a World War II aviator, that he might be embarrassed by personal details in the letters, but he came away from the experience warmed by his parents' devotion and respect for one another.

"It became obvious that I was researching and writing about my dad's war career, but equally about a beautiful love story," Gisriel wrote. "It is a story about a young couple who were deeply in love. It also highlights how important it was for a young serviceman to have someone to whom to return."

Gisriel wrote that after reading the correspondence, he came to know and understand two people who were bound by their Roman Catholic faith, and "how they thought and felt, and how they worried and dealt with life's circumstances at a dangerous time in our nation's history."

It was a quintessential Baltimore love story.

Vince, with a broad smile and a head of wavy hair, was born and raised in East Baltimore. After graduating from Polytechnic Institute in 1941, he went to work for the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co.

One day in the elevator, he bumped into Martha Owens, a dark-haired Seton High School graduate, who was working as a C&P telephone operator and receptionist.

They had their first date on March 24, 1942, and Vince was swept off his feet by Martha's character and beauty.

A month later, he proposed, and she accepted.

They were 19.

Vince enlisted in the Army Air Forces on June 6, 1942, and was called to active duty when he was 20. By the time he was 21, he was a second lieutenant aboard B-17s on bombing missions over Germany. He was promoted to first lieutenant when he was 22.

While riding aboard a train to basic training, Vince wrote the first letter of the couple's wartime correspondence.

"Today I missed you very much, but it's going to get worse as the days go on. Honey, I wish you knew the feelings I have toward you," the young aviator wrote to his fiancee. "It is something that just can't be expressed. … This war can't last forever, and when it is over I'll have you all to myself. But before that, there is a job that has to be done, and I think, I have to help do it."

The day before Thanksgiving 1942, Martha wrote: "Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and you are away. I hope to 'hell' this war is over soon. If it isn't I'll go crazy."

She told Vince what the priest had said at a novena.

"He said we should be thankful that what has happened on the other side has not happened to us," she wrote. "He also said that we should give thanks that we have been so successful so far, and that we should pray to keep up the good work."

"Honest, hon, that is what I'm praying for. It must be a very wonderful feeling to know that a 'war' is over. I hope that it won't be too long," Martha wrote.

The couple sent each other romantic drawings, including a lipstick kiss on paper that Vince had requested.

"I love you. I love you, and I love you. (Mushy — ain't it?)," Martha had written. In another letter, she wrote, "I love you very much. Even more than the devil hates holy water."

While in preflight training at a base in Santa Ana, Calif., Vince wrote a sobering letter on March 4, 1943.

"We were just given a talk by a captain … who has just come back from active service, and he has seen plenty," he wrote. "I want to pass on some of the things he told us. Thru him my outlook of this war has really changed. Hon, after listening to him, we are far from winning this war. I hate to say that but facts are facts."

Martha's wartime glimpses of life in Baltimore contained in the letters mentioned the elimination of pleasure driving — and that pleasure riding in taxis was discouraged. She wrote that members of Baltimore society were riding aboard streetcars in their evening clothes to concerts at the Lyric.

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