When soldiers returned from the battlefronts of World War II, there were few parades and few perks, and housing was scarce. But Bill and Peg Woolston had each other and the relationship they had nurtured primarily through wartime correspondence and black-and-white photos.
The pair are among the group of World War II hopefuls from Montana who want to make the inaugural journey with the Big Sky Honor Flight to visit the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
A Montana chapter of the Honor Flight Network was activated in October to honor the state’s World War II veterans. The purpose of Big Sky Honor Flight is to take veterans to the World War II Memorial on the National Mall free of charge. The chartered flight will cost about $150,000 and will be paid for entirely with donations.
Many of the letters between the wartime sweethearts are brittle and yellowed. The ink has faded, but their contents are powerful reminders of a time both endured and neither would want to relive. They tell a story of a young love that has prevailed for 68 years, of endurance and unwavering patriotism to the United States.
“People were really patriotic back then,” Bill said. “It was a matter of saving the country. The Japanese were right on our doorstep. ... We were desperate.”
Bill’s correspondence to both his wife and parents are tucked inside a small, plain, bank box marked with a simple piece of masking tape that says: “Letters written home from the war.” They are a priceless timeline.
“How’re you this lousy and cold Saturday night?” Bill wrote to his bride in a Sept. 29, 1945, letter from Augsburg, Germany. “I swear if it wasn’t for my radio ... I would have a bad case of the blues along about Saturday night. All through Sept. I’ve been telling myself that I must send a letter ... concerning our marriage anniversary in time to reach you on or about that all-important date in early Oct.”
In a Sept. 16 letter to Peg from Augsburg, he wrote, “I wish now I could recall that grotesque picture I sent you a while back, taken in Dillingen. When I look at it now, I shudder. I promise, I won’t send anymore like that. I know, or realize, how tough it is to get film, but anytime you find someone with a camera ... I would appreciate a pic. I must close and retreat. Love, Bill.”
In a Nov. 14, 1945, letter, he wrote, “Believe me, Peg, it was great to have the mailman walk in with your name written in the upper left corner. Christmas Seal or not, I opened it. I know it is a bit hard to pick out something that a guy could use here, but you did plenty right. My folks recently sent me some fine slippers, so now I have complete relaxing equipment when I get home. I can always acquire a small bottle of bourbon and a radio.”
The couple had met in the spring of 1942. Peg was teaching in Forsyth and Bill had come home from New Jersey, where he was working at a paper mill, to visit his parents. His father “strongly suggested” that Bill meet Peg.
They did and sparks ignited.
Before year’s end, both enlisted in the armed forces, a decision they made jointly. She was 22; he was 21.
He wanted to be a U.S. Navy cadet pilot, a dream that would not materialize. He crashed a couple of times and “washed out” of the program. Convinced that it was not his calling, he left and joined the U.S. Army.
Peg joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, which would later become part of the U.S. Army.
Before enlisting, the couple had only one formal date, the prom, before shipping out to their posts that summer. The letters, though infrequent, kept the love connection simmering. They were married on a three-day pass in October 1943.
Then it was back to their posts.
“We were married two years without ever seeing each other,” said Peg, who is now 92. “I can honestly tell you that I didn’t even know if I would recognize him when I saw him again. What I remember most is how lonesome I got.”
They lived for each other’s carefully worded letters, all of which were scrutinized and censored by officials.
“That was one thing I resented,” said Bill, 90. “You couldn’t write anything without them reading it.”
Some 16.1 million Americans served in uniform during World War II. The youngest of those veterans are in their mid-80s. There are still 18,000 World War II veterans in Montana. Based on 2008 statistics, World War II veterans are dying nationally at the rate of about 1,000 per day.
“If we can just live until April, I’d love to go,” Peg said of the Honor Flight.
While serving, Bill and Peg led disparate lives and vastly different and life-altering experiences, including a near-death episode for Bill.
While serving as head dietitian at Camp Pickett in Virginia where she was in charge of 90 cooks and bakers, Peg was given the task of escorting first lady Eleanor Roosevelt when she came to tour the facilities.
“She came to see us because having women in the military was not usual,” Peg said. “Our purpose was to take a man’s job so he could go overseas. Having the president’s wife come to see us meant we really had to spit and polish.”
A continent away, Sgt. Bill Woolston was on a reconnaissance mission when his group was ambushed by enemy troops. A hailstorm of machine gun fire wounded the driver and an officer and the Jeep crashed off the road. Bill escaped unscathed and rather than risk further injury to his comrades he surrendered, becoming a prisoner of war.
The enemy placed the trio of prisoners in a nearby building, which was occupied by Germans. Bill administered first aid to the wounded and shortly afterward a group of friendly armored vehicles arrived and began shelling the building. Bill carried the wounded soldiers to the basement for protection where he covered them with mattresses and potatoes. He then went back upstairs, where he persuaded the Germans to surrender.
While exposing himself to enemy gunfire, Bill repeatedly tried to attract the attention of the friendly troops by calling out and waving a white flag, a signal to cease fire.
He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his “outstanding courage and devotion to duty.”
“Compared to what many of my comrades went through, my combat experience was a walk in the park,” Bill said. “It was not so drastic or unpleasant. I was proud of what happened. I’m proud of saving these two boys’ lives. When you’re in the military, you play the hand you are dealt.”
As the couple’s hopes build to make the journey to the nation’s capital, Bill said he wants to make it not so much for himself but for those who can’t and never will.
“I’ve never been to Washington, D.C.,” Bill said.