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Love and loss live on long after war's end (article)


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A story that's true to touch the heart strings

Reproduced in accordance with fairdealings

Kitchener Waterloo Record Saturday, Nov 29, 2008

Article Link: http://news.therecord.com/News/CanadaWorld/article/451427

Love and loss live on long after war's end

Eileen Zarnke came home one day in 1944 to find people waiting in her kitchen. They had awful news.

Verne is dead, they told her. Killed in action.

Eileen falls silent recalling the moment. Her eyes fill with tears.

Laverne Wismer was her boyfriend.

"I sometimes think it was better to be killed, than to have to live with it," she says.

Wismer was an ordinary soldier who answered the call of king and country during the Second World War.

Today, he's mourned by an army buddy who kept a solemn promise, by the little sister he loved to tease, and by the heartbroken girlfriend he left behind.

He did his duty.

They lived with the consequences.

It's what sacrifice means.

Somewhere in Italy, November 1943 to April 1944

Laverne Wismer is having trouble concentrating on the letter he's writing to his parents. Bing Crosby is on the radio and he likes the music.

"I'm getting to be really hep lately," he jokes to his parents, Samuel and Catherine Wismer.

After two years of training in England, Wismer is finally in the war against Nazi Germany. But he's not allowed to say much about the fighting and dying.

"We don't know any more about the war than you do," he tells his parents. "Probably not as much."

Wismer, 26, writes cheerful letters to his folks, to sister Margaret, to girlfriend Eileen, who he calls Ila. They all call him Verne.

He hasn't seen them since he left for England in 1941.

In Italy, Verne is a signalman. He fixes radios and lives in an army truck. It's filled with equipment he needs. It also has a light, benches, cupboards, a radio, and room to sleep.

Guys come by at night to play cards and listen to the radio.

"It is nice and comfortable," he writes. "For once, I have a place to work where I don't have to crawl around on my hands and knees."

Verne knows he's lucky. But this is not how he wanted to fight.

When he left his machinist job at the Waterloo Manufacturing Company, Verne had his heart set on becoming a pilot.

But when he went to enlist in August 1941, the air force turned him down, saying his blood pressure was too high.

Annoyed, he marched across the street to join the army.

Now in Italy, Verne tells his folks he's far from the fighting. "I haven't been up to the front yet and don't expect that I shall for some time -- if ever."

In Italy, soldiers do their jobs and try to be comfortable, Verne writes. He likes that there are no parades or spit-and-polish, like in England.

Other soldiers are fond of Verne. He's trustworthy. Back home, he was a scoutmaster. In Italy, the men ask him to run the canteen. It means a lot of running around and handling their cash.

He's bothered when soldiers get drunk and cause trouble, like half of them do after a payday.

"Darn those guys who don't know when and where to drink!" he writes. He assures his mother he's being good.

"You don't have to worry about me and vino. No one with any sense at all drinks that stuff and I pride myself (perhaps flatter would be better) that I have at least a little bit of a brain."

Verne asks his family to keep sending parcels filled with treats. He shares whatever he gets with the guys.

Eileen is known among his buddies as the girlfriend who sends the best parcels.

"We are cooking our own meals and the things in the parcels sure help," Verne tells his parents. "Tonight for supper I mixed a tin of chile con carne (Ila) with a tin of steak and kidney (army). It was good even if I do say so myself."

Verne likes to tease his little sister Margaret. She asks if he's getting fat on spaghetti.

"Tell Sis I still love her very dearly in spite of the letters she sends me," he tells his parents. "Some of the things she writes sound suspiciously like sarcasm. Could that be possible? How's about it Sister Dear?"

He describes Italy as a country of pretty mountains and mud.

"You don't need to worry about me," he tells his mother. "As long as I have to be in the army, I'm satisfied with my job right here. It's as good as anything I know."

Don Monteith made a promise to a dead soldier in 1944. Last month, he kept it.

For the first time since the war, Don returned to Italy. At the Cassino War Cemetery, he found a grave with a special name. It said: Laverne Wismer.

Don struggled with his emotions. He planted a Canadian flag. And he spoke to his wartime buddy, again.

"Now you're home," he said.

Don met Wismer in 1941 at Camp Borden, near Barrie. He operated radios. Wismer fixed them. The army guys called him Wiz.

"Wiz was just a great, great guy," Don says. "He was good-natured, friendly. He was easy to keep a conversation with about anything."

The other guys liked Wiz, partly because he happily shared Eileen's spectacular parcels. When the mail came, guys would gather, anticipating the goodies.

"They were going to get married," Don recalls. "But he thought he'd better wait until he got back."

Don and Wiz were both sent to Italy. But Don was not there when Wiz was killed. The men got the news a day or two later, from other soldiers who brought a mule train down a mountain.

It hit them hard.

Don volunteered to go up the mountain to figure out what happened.

In the early spring of 1944, Wiz was sent to the front. There, Don learned that he left shelter to fetch water at a creek.

He was either shot by a sniper or felled by a mortar, according to accounts told later.

Laverne Wismer died April 28, 1944. He was 26.

By the time Don got up the mountain, Wiz was already buried in a temporary grave. Don planted a cross the men had made.

Standing there, feeling miserable, he promised: I'll be back, to make sure you get the grave you deserve.

"It took me 64 years to get back. But I got back," Don says. "I would have rolled over in my own grave, if I hadn't got to see him."

Don went on to fight in Italy and Holland. After victory, he stayed in the military, then came home to build a career in insurance. He's 85 now, retired in St. Thomas, Ont.

Remembrance Day has always been Laverne Wismer day to Don, and to Margaret Wismer Kuehl.

Her three brothers all served in the war. Only Verne was killed. The telegram arrived in Waterloo on a Friday afternoon.

"My family took it quite hard," Margaret says. They thought Verne was far from the fighting.

Margaret, now 89, was close to Verne. He was two years older than her. "You never forget," she says from her home in B.C.

Verne was always looking out for her. "He checked out any boyfriends I had, made sure they were OK," she says.

Margaret helped break the news to Eileen. They have stayed friends over the decades. "She never got over it," Margaret says.

Eileen's memories of the war are sharp and clear. Too clear.

She met Verne before the war, when they worked at the Forsyth pyjama factory. He walked her home after they rehearsed a Christmas skit, then invited her to a wiener roast.

Verne did not resemble the man of her dreams. He wasn't ugly but he wasn't handsome. He wasn't dashing. He was kind of plain and a bit awkward.

"He was tall and slim, and I don't think he had an ounce of rhythm," Eileen says.

They went on group dates. She found him nice, easy to talk to. Slowly, she fell in love. It surprised her, a bit.

"There wasn't anything special about him," she recalls. "It was just that he had everything that was good."

The couple, both 24, talked about marrying when Verne enlisted. Other couples were marrying in a hurry before the men went off to war. A girlfriend warned Eileen not to let him go without a wedding.

But Verne balked. A friend warned him, what if you come back missing a limb? "He kind of took that to heart," Eileen says.

Suddenly, he was overseas.

They wrote each other constantly. Every two weeks when she got paid, Eileen mailed a parcel, 22 pounds, the heaviest allowed. She filled them with goodies like cookies and spices and jam. She figured he was sharing them.

One day in 1944, Eileen came home from golfing at Rockway. Her mother was waiting in the kitchen with Margaret. Margaret was distraught.

Six decades later, the memory still brings Eileen to tears.

"That was the biggest shock in my life," she says.

Three weeks passed before she could return to work.

After the war, Eileen kept busy with jobs and church and Sunday school. She liked to bowl and skate. She tried pottery and sculpture and macramé. She hung out with girlfriends. They had a sewing club but did little sewing.

She once dated a guy who was always joking. She could never tell when he was being serious. Another fellow drank too much.

"Any other guy that came along, I measured him by Verne," Eileen says. "And most of them didn't fit."

She never married.

Eileen turns 92 in January. She lives in the same small house where Margaret told her Verne was dead.

The paint is fading in her living room. The furniture is worn. A cat sleeps on a kitchen chair.

When people say everybody loses in war, Eileen understands.

She weeps softly, dabbing at her red eyes.

"I used to say, I don't need a poppy to remember," she says. "I wish there was some kind of flower that would make me forget."

Yes Granny, it truly caught me too when I was reading the news on my break. Definately thought it was a treasure worth sharing. From the letters he wrote home to the memories his loved ones had. Beautiful article.
I would like to thank Proudnurse for posting this story and others who read the article about my great uncle. He has done our country proud