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Couple's wartime romance captured in daughter's book

Thursday, July 17, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
Marsha Knudsen used letters and diaries from a trunk she inherited from her parents to piece together their love story when her father was in the Navy during World War II.

COLUMBIA — A steamer trunk lies open, revealing carefully and lovingly organized contents: a sea bag with the name "Norris, H.L."; a box filled to the brim with air letters addressed in fading ink and postcard-like V-mail; a sectioned box holding a ring with an "N" on it; and a gold locket bearing a delicate, cursive "R."

These are the early records of Homer and Ruth Norris's love story.

* * *

Editor's note: The excerpts of Homer's letters to Ruth have been edited slightly for clarity.

I love you, Ruth, (my wife).

This war can't last forever. The news tonight continued to be good. I can't see how Germany can hold out much longer. The Russians have advanced thirty eight miles in twenty four hours and Germany asking all their population that's able to get arms. It looks like the war in Europe will soon be over as far as the fighting goes.

Wouldn't it be grand if when I did get home or in the States that the war would be over and I wouldn't have to come back out here some place. I know this time what it's like, and I'm not kidding anyone. It's just plain hell.

Tomorrow is Sunday, 28th, just SIXTY SIX MORE DAYS until my eighteen months are in. It can't be too soon to suit me.

Lots of love, kisses and hugs,

Your husband, Homer Lee

* * *

Homer Norris and Ruth Yancey were born in Ralls County, in northeast Missouri. He was a farmer's son and she "a most attractive and charming young lady," according to a 1941 article about their wedding published in the Perry Enterprise.

"May 25, 1941. Homer is simply wild about me. I imagine we will be married right away. We look forward to seeing each other all the time," Ruth wrote in her diary a few months before their August wedding.

But that December, the U.S. joined World War II. A year later, Homer was eligible to be drafted and volunteered for the Navy. Until March 1945, Homer and Ruth wrote to each other — Ruth wrote a letter every day, more than 600 letters in all, according to her daughter, Marsha Knudsen of Columbia.

Ruth's letters to Homer were lost, but more than 200 he wrote to her survived, as did her diaries, in which she often mentioned what she wrote to him.

These letters and diary entries were the basis for Knudsen's "Sailor's Mail," which she published this year through Compass Flower Press.

Knudsen discovered her parents' story when she inherited the trunk after her mother's death six years ago. Inside, Knudsen found pictures, scrapbooks, trinkets, diaries and the letters Homer wrote 70 years ago.

"I pulled out her diary and scrapbooks, and then I started piecing things together," Knudsen said.

She began presenting her findings to a weekly memoir-writing group she attends, Winn's Orphaned Writers. When the rest of the group kept showing interest in her parent's stories, she decided to write a book about the letters.

"I was surprised that anyone else would be so interested about my parents' war story," Knudsen said, "and that's when the one lady said, 'Well, this isn't just a war story, it's a love story.'"

Pat Holt, a member of the group, was first to encourage her to make it into a book.

"It was touching," Holt said. "It was a tough old army guy in the jungle just being a loving husband."

At the writing club's urging, Knudsen began the five-year journey to writing "Sailor's Mail." 

The book was therapeutic for Knudsen, who used it as a way to work through her grief over losing her parents. Homer died in 2005, and Ruth died in 2008. They were married for 63 years.

"To read her scrapbooks and look at her diary and read his letters, it was like having a little visit from them," Knudsen said, "and since I missed them so much, I didn't want that to end."

Knudsen had to wait 4 1/2 years before she felt comfortable enough to finish the last of the letters. Even so, there are still parts that bring tears to her eyes.

"I know from growing up that Christmas was such a special time for my folks. And so when he was gone for Christmas" — Knudsen paused to collect herself — "I know that that was a really, really hard time for them. ... That's my special thing, and so that was the hardest part to write about, to read about. Because I know, I know too much about how much emotion was in it."

* * *

"Honey, I got a beautiful Christmas card from you yesterday. It had such a nice verse in it. It made tears come when I opened it. That day down at Rev. Golden's when I said I will take this woman to be my lawfully wedded wife. I meant that forever, too. Darling, you're the only one as far as I'm concerned. That's all I think of day in and day out, my Ruth Marie.

It's about eleven o'clock now, so I'll have to sign off for now.

All my love, kisses, and everything,

Homer

* * *

"When I tell people what the book is about, almost everyone will say it will remind them of someone in their family that was affected by World War II," Knudsen said. "My mother and father are kind of like the everyday heroes that people have in everybody's family. There wasn't anything of notoriety except that they did what they were supposed to do."

For Homer, that meant traveling across the West Coast to Hawaii, Abemama, Kwajalein Atoll and Guam during his 17 months of sea duty. His emotions were ones of homesickness and anger at not knowing where he'd be stationed next or when he'd be home again.

"It's sure getting dead around this place, nothing going on. We're so far behind on the map, think we've been forgotten," he wrote in a letter dated July 6, 1944. "We all get so down in the dumps at times, and so tired of the same old thing over and over. I sure wish I was back there. The hell with these damn islands."

Any letter Homer wrote after he left California was censored. But Ruth and Homer didn't let this stop them. They came up with a secret "Norris Code," in which Homer left numbered codes in his letters that Ruth could decrypt to figure out where he was stationed.

* * *

My Darling Wife,

September is almost half gone now. My, how time flies by. Today, I got five letters, three from you, one each from our mothers.

Darling, you're so nice to me. All I ask is for you to be waiting for me when I do get home, which I know you will be. ...

I go on guard duty in about half an hour. It's six p.m. now. That means that I won't go to any show tonight. Last night, the show was "Blonde Trouble" with Mickey Rooney. That boy sure has more trouble with his girls. They were two girls, twins, and one liked him and the other didn't. He couldn't tell them apart. He had one hell of a time.

Well, honey, I'll have to quit for now. Goodnight, my darling, I love you so much.

Lots of love & kisses,

Homer

* * *

Knudsen hopes to use her book and her story of finding the trunk to inspire others to take part in recording their own family history. On her website, where the book is sold, she provides resources about properly preserving photographs and letters, as well as ways of saving oral histories.

"What you do with them is you keep them," she said. "You are now a memory keeper, you protect them."

Knudsen gives free presentations on these methods and how to find information about people's military service. She also stresses the importance of recording the activities of daily life now, for future generations.

"You need to preserve the past, but you need to honor the present as well," Knudsen said, "and realize that every day that you're living, you're making memories. And some of them are very special ones."

She said these historical narratives are important because they create a dialogue across generations, in which someone with little knowledge of World War II can be drawn in by the story and learn the history along the journey. 

"It's important for the young people to know how it was — the good and the bad times," Holt said. "We rush around in our daily life so much now."

* * *

My Darling Wife,

My love, today is our third wedding anniversary. Seems only a short time since we were on our honeymoon and what a wonderful trip. Gee! I wish we were on our second honeymoon now instead of us being so very far apart. But we are very close together in one way. That's our love.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.


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