Emotional toll of losing loved ones to war can last a lifetime
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
After Helen Wolfgang gave birth to her daughter on Aug. 1, 1944, she bought a pair of baby socks and mailed one to her G.I. husband in Europe to let him know he’d become a father.
She didn’t know whether her husband, Army Pvt. William Welch of Masontown, received it.
“I never heard from him. ... The mail was very spotty,” said Wolfgang of Greensburg. “You could go six weeks without mail.”
Welch was killed Dec. 19, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge. When the Army shipped his belongings home, she learned that he got her message. “He had the sock in his billfold, so I knew he got it,” she said, wiping away tears.
Although 90 years old now, Wolfgang is among widows of World War II servicemen whose memories of the husbands they lost remain vivid.
Some, like Wolfgang of Greensburg, continue decades after the war to try to find touchstones to the men they loved who died in warfare, such as the Battle of the Bugle, the largest land battle on the Western Front during World War II and the largest engagement ever fought by the Army.
It involved more than 1 million men, lasting from December 1944 to January 1945.
And while no one disputes the contribution such battles made to America’s freedom, celebrated Wednesday on Independence Day, the emotional toll on the loved ones of victims of any war can become a lifelong scar and longing.
“When you love someone and they leave, like for the war, it’s just not final. You look for a final answer,” said Wolfgang. “You’re always searching for someone who might have known him.”
This week, Frank W. Towers, executive secretary-treasurer of the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of WWII sent Wolfgang a letter with the names of nine surviving members of William Welch’s unit.
Wolfgang, who had three children with her second husband, Robert Wolfgang of Salem, Ohio, has spent 68 years searching newspaper stories about the battle, hoping to find the name of someone, somewhere who served with her first husband.
She hasn’t had any luck and worries she is running out of time. The Department of Veterans Affairs expects 250,000 World War II veterans will die this year.
Grief is especially difficult for women who lose their husbands just after getting married, said Toni L. Bisconti, an associate professor at the University of Akron who has written extensively on the topic.
“They were in the part of their relationship where they didn’t even have time to get tired of each other,” she said. “When you lose someone at the beginning of a relationship, you’re always looking for answers.”
Widows of all ages face multiple losses when their spouses are killed, said Taryn Davis, 26, founder and executive director of the American Widow Project, a Buda, Texas-based nonprofit dedicated to the new generation of military widows, women who lost spouses in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“I lost my best friend. I lost the potential father of my children. I lost myself. I lost grandchildren,” she said of the 2007 death of her husband, Army Cpl. Michael Davis, killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq after 18 months of marriage.
Taryn Davis established an online memorial to her husband using technology not available in the 1940s. Today’s war widows reach out to each other using Facebook and other social media.
“But there is no right or wrong way to do this,” Davis said. “The rug got pulled out from underneath us.”
Joanne Gump sympathizes with Wolfgang.
“It’s a need to connect, a need to be a part of something you were once so deeply connected to,” said Gump, 65, of Canonsburg, the widow of Marine Sgt. Dennis L. Gump Sr. , who died in 2008 from cancer that might have been caused by exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
Joanne Gump went to Vietnam last year and spent 10 days visiting places her husband was in the 1960s.
“It was a lifelong dream of my husband (to return) and I felt he walked with me,” she said. “I can understand how (Wolfgang) feels ... that is love everlasting.”
Many bereaved people experience a strong connection with deceased loved ones, “something like an enduring bond,” researcher George A. Bonanno, wrote in “The Other Side of Sadness: What The New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss.”
Wolfgang’s future husband caught her eye as he walked across the street in front of the American Laundry in Salem where she worked.
“I saw this good-looking guy,” she said. “It was love at first sight.” They married Oct. 4, 1941; he was drafted Feb. 3, 1942.
She went from newlywed to new mom to grieving widow in about three years. She became a Gold Star widow, hanging the World War II symbol in the window of her home to signify the loss of a family member in battle. It was one of four Gold Stars on her block.
Her continued search for information about the times and people her husband knew is not solitary.
“It happens all the time,” said Debra Kraus, spokeswoman for Gold Star Wives of America Inc. The Washington-based organization includes more than 10,000 members in 53 chapters in 26 states.
Survivors want to learn more about the deaths of their spouses, said Ami Neiberger-Miller, public affairs officer for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, in Washington.
“Today families get death investigation reports and autopsy reports if they want them — but they did not do those in World War II,” Neiberger-Miller said.
Experts said Wolfgang’s quest is probably healthy.
“Searching keeps us young,” Bisconti said.