A Veterans Day Love Story
A handsome 19-year-old finds the girl of his dreams. She is in high school. Cute and approachable. They fall for one another. It’s been a brief courting, but the two know it’s more than just puppy love. This is the one.
It’s the 1950s – Truman is the president, Elvis is becoming ‘The King,’ and the U.S. is at war in Korea.
The draft is in effect. The pair knows what has to come next.
Faced with the inevitable deployment, the two lovebirds get engaged. He rushes off to his draft board and asks to be deployed as soon as possible. His thinking: The sooner he serves his country, the sooner he can get back so the two can marry.
Sound like a movie?
It’s a true story – the story of Joe and Grace.
Joe was an only child, born and raised in Chicago. Grace, also from the Second City, was the youngest of six … Well, I’ll just let them tell the story…
GRACE: I met Joe when I was almost 17. I went to a private girls’ school and boys were verboten. I needed a date for a school dance, so my girlfriend Alice and I went the St. Andrews Church dance. Alice’s brother, Art, drove us to the dance and promised to pick us up at 11 p.m. At the dance, Alice and I met two guys we liked. I met Joe and fell hard. After the dance he wanted to take me to my home. And I REALLY wanted to go with him, but you know the old saying: “You always go home with the boy that BRUNG you.” That means I said NO to Joe.
Alice and I went back for another dance where we met two nice guys, but Joe wasn’t there. So, the four of us went back for the next few weeks as two “couples.” Joe never showed up. Then one week, I actually spotted him. I got very excited, left our group, and walked over to him to see if he wanted to dance. He looked hesitant. He said there wasn’t any music playing, so I said I’d wait! He asked if I was already with someone, since he saw me, Alice and our dates. In the end, I forgot the rule about the guy who BRUNG you, and I asked Joe to take me home. He said he had no car that night, so we took the bus home.
JOE: We became very comfortable with each other early in our relationship and were content just going to a movie or for ice cream at the Buffalo on Irving Park Rd. More than anything, I remember how mature and sensible Grace was even though she was 17. She was more mature than any of the other girls I had dated who were 18 or 19 years old.
GRACE: Joe and I clicked. He was handsome, funny, a good dancer and a good listener. We talked for hours on the phone, and we saw each other as often as we could; we were young.
JOE: We met late summer or early fall of 1952. We were engaged when I was home over the holidays in December of 1953, just before I shipped out. So Grace was a month or two shy of her 18th birthday and I was 20 and a half.
JOE: At the time there was a draft.
GRACE: The thought of him enlisting in the Army and knowing he’d be gone for two years was unbelievably sad for me.
JOE: Since I knew Grace and I would someday marry, I decided to go to my local draft board and asked to be called up immediately. They were very obliging. I think I got my notice in a couple of weeks.
I didn’t think it was right to get married and then head off to war.
GRACE: I truly hated the idea of Joe joining the Army, but in my heart, I knew he had to do it. No one in our family shirked their military responsibility. My dad, my two brothers and my two brothers-in-law all served. It was just a fact of life.
We became engaged before he left for the service. That wasn’t unusual back then. Girls got married right after high school. They didn’t go to college. I worked in the office at Montgomery Ward as soon as I graduated from school.
TIME TO SHIP OUT
GRACE: Joe’s parents gave him a small farewell party when he was leaving for Fort Sheridan. That was the first time I met my future in-laws. The very first thing his mother said to me was: “Well, so YOU’RE the one who put ME on the shelf.” Wow! What a nice warm and fuzzy welcoming into the Henmueller family.
JOE: I was a helicopter crew chief in the U.S. Army and went in at Fort Sheridan, Ill., on June 10, 1953. I celebrated my 20th birthday on June 15th on the base. Grace and my parents were there. I then deployed to Korea mid-January of 1954 after being home on leave.
GRACE: I saw him off from Fort Sheridan along with his parents. Tears were shed. Not many words were spoken.
JOE: We left Camp Stoneman near San Francisco and traveled up the coast to Fort Lewis outside Seattle and embarked on a ship with a contingent of Marines. After a voyage of 3-plus weeks, we arrived at Yokohama, Japan. The Marines disembarked. The ship stayed in port overnight, and in the morning we sailed to Sasebo, Japan. After a week there, we sailed to Inchon, South Korea.
(Note: The Korean Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953.)
JOE: There was some concern when walking guard duty, especially at my first assignment, which was with an artillery battalion just a few miles from the DMZ. Several hundred people had been killed since the ceasefire. Half from accidents, the others due to hostile action.
GRACE: I hated the time we were apart. I was both sad and lonely. Seemed more like 20 years instead of two. Our so-called relationship seemed non-existent. Writing letters was a far cry from actually being with someone. It wasn’t a time of dances, movies and parties - It was boring. Just go to work and go home to start all over the next day.
JOE: The only entertainment we had were movies. They were usually on two reels so we had to wait after the first reel while they rewound it before we could watch the second part. I remember one USO show in particular. The headliner was Ann Margret. One thing I remember about Korea was the extreme cold in the winter and the monsoon rains in the late summer.
GRACE: You won’t believe this, but I actually wrote to Joe every single day for the entire two years he was gone. I didn’t always have any newsy things to share, so I’d include some news clippings or service related cartoons I thought he might like.
JOE: The highlight of the day for a GI is mail call. Grace wrote to me daily and I pretty much did the same. I still have the Parker 51 pen I used.
GRACE: The letters were great, but it’s nothing like hearing someone’s voice. Every so often I would send him a CARE package, sometimes with cookies I’d baked. I’d send enough so he could share with his buddies.
The cookies recipe called for some baking soda, which was in a clear jar instead of a box. We had a similar jar to it that contained Epsom salt. Since they didn’t have labels on them, I had to make an educated guess as to which one was the baking soda I needed. The cookies turned out fine, so I sent them off. Joe said he and his buddies enjoyed them. Since none of them ended up in sick bay, I guess I made the right choice!
JOE: We were able to talk only once while I was overseas. I was able to call from Japan while on leave around Christmas of 1954. Grace visited my folks knowing I would call so we could talk.
GRACE: I never thought it wouldn’t work out. When I was young, I knew everything. Age has made me more humble. Now I know nothing. I don’t think I ever was young and doubtful. I tend to think I was always “an old soul.”
JOE: There was never a serious concern that it wouldn’t work out even though I knew a couple of guys who received “Dear John” letters. Of course, in many of our letters we discussed wedding plans, and I knew Grace was making many of the arrangements.
GRACE: Joe knew his parents would be lonesome while he was gone, so he asked me to visit them and fill the void. So I did. Every Monday for two years I would work, go home and have dinner, then get on the bus and visit with them for a few hours.
GRACE: Joe was getting out of the service in May, so we planned to get married in July. It was up to me to make most of the wedding plans. I was only 19, so my parents helped me a lot. I had to select the venue for the reception and the dinner menu. I had to deal with the church plans, the music, the readings, etc. About the only thing Joe and I selected together was the wedding invitations, and they got screwed up royally!
JOE: I was separated from active duty on May 19, 1955. I was obligated for six more years in the Inactive Reserves and then received an honorable discharge.
GRACE: I can’t recall the exact emotion on the day he returned home for good. I guess it was total relief that his absence was history; I didn’t dwell on it. I also had the wedding to plan.
JOE: When I got back, I was just extremely happy to see her; to hug and kiss her. I think if anything, the separation just strengthened our feelings for each other.
It’s just hard to believe that what started out as a casual meeting at a church dance has resulted in 61 years of marriage.
Joe finished his service with the rank of corporal, and the two were married July 23, 1955.
Seven children, 17 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren later, Joe and Grace still reside in the same home they purchased 54 years ago.
Nowadays, Joe is State Commander of Department of Illinois for the Korean War Veterans Association, where he’s been a member for about nine years. Both Grace and Joe enjoy volunteering their time at various charitable organizations.
This is just one of many love stories that have survived war and withstood the test of time.
These are better than the movies. These are real life.
This particular story is the story of my grandparents.
A story that began over 60 years ago and continues to be written to this day.
It’s Veterans Day, so here’s to all of America’s veterans – thank you. And most importantly, thank you to the veteran that means the most to me - my grandfather Joe.
Joe and Grace with some of their grandkids and great grandkids.
Joe (first row, 4th from left) with Korean War Veterans Association