PLATTSBURGH — Second Lt. Gretchen Boody and Lt. Edward Siegel’s romance flamed in the Panama Canal Zone.
Their daughters, Jane Whitmore and Andrea Feinberg, learned the twists and turns of their parents’ love story after their mother’s death in 2008. Their father died a decade before, and their parents share a grave in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
WANTED STORY TOLD
“We found the letters she had exchanged with our father, mostly in 1944,” said Jane, who lives in Pittsburgh. “They were in their home in Sarasota, Fla. My sister and I own that house. I brought the letters home and started reading them. My parents wanted their story told.”
Whitmore and Feinberg edited and published their parents’ remarkable faith-crossed story in “Memoirs of a War Time Romance: The Story of Mr. Bops and Miss Boo.”
Gretchen was a Methodist from Wisconsin. Edward was an Orthodox Jew from New York. She signs her letters variations of “Miss Boo,” and he signs his the likes of “Mr. Bops.”
“I’m not at all guilty about doing this,” Jane said. “They talked to an author to try to get it down. There has always been discussion in the family about who should write the story. So when I got the stories, I read for three hours and I said, ‘Here’s the book. Here’s the story. It’s all here as the letters unfold.’”
Last year, she typed her parents’ correspondence.
“The book is 473 pages. It includes a lot of photographs. The hardest part was putting them together in an order that made sense because my mother didn’t date any of them and my dad did. Letters were in clumps in envelopes, sort of together. Thank God for the Internet,” Jane said.
If Gretchen wrote about a full moon in 1944, Jane was able to discern which month it was. She italicized her mother’s letters and left her father’s in regular print.
“So, I could figure out who was what,” Jane said. “My sister and I collaborated on the organization and the editing. She really supported the project financially. We sat for four days in October and edited together, the first of many edits.”
Gretchen departed Panama in February 1944 to go home to Wisconsin on leave before her next assignment.
“That’s when the letters start,” Jane said. “She starts writing on the ship (USS Gen. D.E. Aultman). She writes a little bit every day. They landed at New Orleans. The censors physically cut out New Orleans. Any dope can figure out where they’re at, any dope that’s been to New Orleans.”
Back at the 210th General Hospital, Edward received letters detailing Gretchen’s readjustment after a two-year absence from the United States.
“She writes about the food, the snow,” Jane said. “It just gives me chills. What’s it like to be an American, why are we fighting the war? She writes, and he starts writing back. They write almost every day.”
“On the ship from Panama to United States
My dearest Bopsy,
I’ve only been gone a few hours, but already I’ve looked for you a dozen times to tell you something … no I didn’t let anyone know my feelings today, but not bragging it was the greatest thing I ever did for I wanted to cry like a baby. I was so lonesome & lost. … Your Miss Boo
You wouldn’t be very proud of your sailor honey. I’ve been sick as a dog. We had been out an hour when my cookies really got tossed. Suppose it was the nervousness, excitement & everything all at once & then that horrible let down. The way I feel, they’ll bury another sailor at sea…”
I’ve been thinking of us so much, darling, that I find it practically impossible to sleep at night … The idea of not seeing you again is just too much for me to contemplate...
There must be some answer to you and I somewhere in this world…
Your old baby,
BOB HOPE’S NOSE
After Gretchen’s departure, the “Number One Soldier in Greasepaint,” Bob Hope, toured Panama.
“My dad took care of him as a doctor,” Jane said. “He wrote about looking up Bob Hope’s nose. It’s so cool.”
As their correspondence progresses, Edward realizes he desperately misses Gretchen.
CLASH OF FAITHS
“He’s trying to get up the courage to tell his parents (that he was in love with a woman who was not Jewish),” Jane said. “He gets discouraged. He decides to write.”
“Mar 17, 1944
Well, the die is cast. I wrote to the folks today and for 4 single-spaced typewritten sheets I poured out my heart and story to them about us, darling. I don’t know how they can say or do anything but what we want baby, now all we have to do is wait. … I love you---------
“His parents have a fit, as expected,” Jane said. “He gets his orders to go home, and then he meets up with his parents. They read him the riot act.”
Edward’s brother, Martin, wrote a letter to Gretchen.
“March 29, 1944
I am answering your letter to the family … please understand; we are all sick at heart and frankly, Absolutely do not give our consent … There is no further chance of changing our feeling, it is definite, it is final...
God bless you, Martin”
“Martin writes to my mother all the reasons why this relationship can never be,” Jane said. “I have a letter from my grandfather (Jacob Siegel) telling her the same thing.”
Gretchen and Edward break up.
“Not really,” Jane said. “The letters never stop. They try to sort it out. My mother’s family had no problem with them. They were just fine.”
Edward consulted with a chaplain there in Panama, who told him it was possible for Gretchen to convert to Judaism. Edward passed the information to Gretchen.
“She takes the ball and runs with it. The story of her lessons in Judaism and her conversion happened in October 1944 in St. Louis. While she’s doing that, my father breaks up with her a second time. His family is driving him crazy. My uncle married the perfect Jewish girl, my Aunt Betty.”
Jane got the scoop from her aunt on her paternal grandmother, Ida Siegel.
“Betty said she was mean. She said, ‘I was the perfect Jewish girl, and she wouldn’t come to my wedding either.’ My mother converts. My mother is stationed in Camp Ellis, Ill., and Camp McCoy, Wis. My dad is stationed in Camp Blanding, Fla,” Jane said.
The lovers meet for a few days in July 1944.
“They’re in love. They’re committed. They can’t figure out what the heck they’re going to do,” Jane said.
Gretchen and Edward’s good friend from Panama, the Rev. Jim Laws, a Catholic chaplain, intervenes.
“He went back to visit my father’s parents to try to convince them that this relationship should be,” Jane said.
Laws’s mediation attempt was unsuccessful, and he writes a letter to Edward explaining how the visit went.
“It’s a very sweet letter,” Jane said. “He said, ‘I don’t know what you’re going to do.’”
Email Robin Caudell: firstname.lastname@example.org
This three-part series chronicles the tumultuous, faith-crossed love affair between U.S. Army Lt. Edward Siegel, an Orthodox Jew, and 2nd Lt. Gretchen Boody, a Methodist, during World War II. The couple spent many years in Plattsburgh.
Their story unfurls in “Memoirs of a War Time Romance: The Story of Mr. Bops and Miss Boo” edited by their daughters, Jane Whitmore and Andrea Feinberg, and forthcoming by Trafford Publishing.
Look for the third installment, “Okinawa Rendezvous,” in the newspaper next Wednesday.