WASHINGTON, November 30, 2012 — There are casualties of war that war knows nothing about. It is a tragic fact that not all casualties of war take place on the battlefield. Not all victims wear uniforms. Nor can they be found registered in war records or even in the obituaries of local newspapers.
My family has always thought Helen Mae was one such casualty of World War II. She lived and married and shortly thereafter died. At Walter Reed Army Hospital, the two attending physicians presented divergent opinions on the cause of death. One said Helen Mae Tenent Garnett died of double pneumonia. The other doctor said simply, “This woman died of a broken heart.” Both diagnoses, I’m sure, were correct.
Broken heart syndrome? Helen Mae’s story may not be as rare as one might think. Or, more accurately, not think.
I do remember Helen Mae. How could I forget? This 22-year-old beauty was the first dead person I ever saw. Hers was the first funeral I ever attended. She lay so still and silent in that casket at Willis Funeral Home. I both cried and misbehaved there in the viewing parlor. I was just eight years old. I didn’t understand what was happening, and nobody had explained death to me.
No one told me why this gentle and kind woman for the first time didn’t smile at me.
I had been six years old when Pearl Harbor happened. Knowledge of all this did not, of course, penetrate my childish brain. Most adult Americans first heard of Pearl Harbor when their radios thundered the news of the attacks on the Hawaii naval base that December 7 sunny Sunday of 1941.
The war seeped into my childhood consciousness with fear and wonder and much confusion. As I lay on the linoleum floor with my coloring book, I listened as the news poured out from the tall Motorola radio.
My brother Lew and Helen Mae were married in 1943. She was beautiful. A fragile beauty, she seemed unreal, like Snow White or a movie actress. The couple had hardly settled into their apartment on Main Street when Lew was drafted into the Army and shipped to Fort Belvoir in Virginia.
Living in Washington would prove especially convenient for the young bride, we thought, if Lew remained stationed at Fort Belvoir. He did. But in the Army Engineers, he had difficulty getting wartime leave and three-day passes. Meanwhile, his bride missed him more and more as time passed.
She wrote many letters. To Lew and to my mother. You could sense her trying to be brave and strong. Her condition, however, weakened. Her own mother had died when Helen Mae was just 14. As the oldest, she had taken on the role of caretaker and the duties of a “mother” for her six younger siblings. For this reason her marriage to Lew had been delayed a few years. Then finally settled and happily married, Lew was snatched away from her by the draft board.
The story of her passing is best told by Helen Mae herself in the letters she wrote, letters that now sit before me on my desk.
June 6, 1943, she wrote to my mother: “I never knew how much I would miss Lew until he was gone. I have been pretty lonesome here.” On September 6, she wrote, “I woke up this morning with the grippe. I’m not in bed, but I think I ought to stay in, especially with the weather the way it is today”.
To Lew she wrote on November 18, “Do you think you will get home this weekend, hon? I hope so. I am beginning to get down in the dumps again. Last night was the first I’d been out. Mildred and I went to a movie show, then a short drive because she had some gas stamps. Dad says I sit around too much. Well, darling, don’t pay any attention to what I wrote, I just like letting my hair down. I love you very much. All my love, Helen Mae”
The next day, my mother received a letter, which began, “My sister Betty is writing this for me because I am too sick to write. Was in bed almost a week before I called a doctor. When he came he said I was bordering on pneumonia and he was going to send me to the hospital. I refused to go, and they changed their minds.
“I haven’t seen Lew for a month. I still don’t expect to see him for another couple of weeks…. If you don’t hear from me in the next week or so, it’s because I’m too tired to write. I’ll try to take good care of myself and you do the same. Love, Helen Mae”
Then, one night shortly after this, Lew got a phone call at the Belvoir barracks. An army car drove him to Walter Reed Army Hospital. His young bride was in an oxygen tent when he saw her. She was pale and wan. He had arranged for a billet at nearby Forest Glen. The next morning, he went to see her again and stayed as long as he could. He hated to leave her, but he couldn’t get extra time off from the service. Private Lew Garnett reported back to Ford Belvoir. Helen Mae Tenet Garnett, his wife, died the next day
Lew had to take the long chugging train from Union Station in Washington to Parkesburg, Pennsylvania. He rode alone in a passenger car, while his bride traveled, in the words of an old song, “in the baggage car ahead.”
A lovely light had gone out. But perhaps Helen Mae can best be described and recalled in these words of William Wordsworth: “A perfect woman, nobly planned/To warm, to comfort, and command/And yet a Spirit still, and bright/With something of an angel light.”
I can only say that I still remember Helen Mae, a sad casualty of war.
Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as the legendary Paul Harvey ,columnist William Safire, and dean of sportswriters Shirley Povich.
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