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Our War: Belleville woman relives memories through husband's WWII letters

Warren and LaToura Heck.
Warren and LaToura Heck. submitted photo

More than 500 yellowing, handwritten letters in a box chronicle the two years a Belleville woman and her husband spent apart during World War II.

LaToura Heck and Warren Heck, a Navy SeaBee assigned to the Pacific during the war, married on her 19th birthday, two days before Warren left for basic training.

The letters span his service overseas from 1943 to 1945.

"We got married in a real big hurry because he had just been drafted," LaToura Heck, 83, said. "We spent our first Christmas together with him in the Philippines. We celebrated two anniversaries apart."

For two years, the couple communicated only through letters and pictures. Letters could sometimes take a month, or more, to reach their destination. When she failed to hear from him for weeks at a time, she worried. There was no picking up the phone or logging on to the Internet to check on his well-being, she said.

"That was definitely the hardest part," she said. "The not knowing where he was or if he was OK."

Keeping a long-distance marriage alive and kicking wasn't a chore, she said.

"Oh, we were so in love," she said, smiling. "We planned our lives together in those letters. We'd send drawings of the house we wanted to build back and forth in those letters. He even asked me to send him a ruler so he could make precise changes to our plans."

The photos he sent her were censored by the Department of Defense and occasionally she received a photograph that had been "censored" with a pair of scissors. One photo is of Warren and his buddies sitting on a stack of large ammunition. In the censored photo, the pile of ammunition had been carefully cut away by a censor so only the people remained.

"When I got that photo I thought, 'Huh, I wonder what else was there?'" LaToura Heck said. "Everything he sent went through the censors first. They had to hand over the letters, unsealed, and the censors would seal them after they went through them."

But censorship didn't stop LaToura Heck from sending her husband her own version of Betty Grable "cheesecake" shots of herself posing in a swimsuit.

"I wanted to get my picture put up in his footlocker, too, not just Betty Grable," she said. "I found out later a lot of women did that, so I wasn't the only one."

While waiting for the next letter from her husband, and waiting for the war to end so they could see each other again and start a life together, LaToura Heck attended nursing school at the St. Louis City Hospital and joined the Nurse Cadet Corps.

At the time, the St. Louis City Hospital was designated as the hospital that would be the central staging point if the St. Louis region were attacked. The Nurse Cadet Corps trained for that possibility.

"We were definitely ready for anything," she said.

When the Japanese surrendered, Warren Heck was watching the movie "Flying Tigers." The film was interrupted and the announcement made, he told her in a letter. He described the celebration of the surrender and exhilaration of the sailors he was with.

In turn, LaToura Heck wrote her husband and described her reaction to the announcement. She and her nursing school friends made their way down to the riverfront in St. Louis where a full-blown celebration was under way, including the drinking of a little too much Southern Comfort.

"That was the first time ever I got sick when I drank," she said with a smile. "Nothing bad happened, but I did get sick. It was quite the celebration."

Newlyweds separated by the war were not uncommon, LaToura said. She made many friends in nursing school.

"A lot of us were married pretty quickly," she recalled. "We supported each other, we hung out together, because it was hard. We were all in the same position, we all had the same worries. There are still a few of us around, and we have been able to get together from time to time."

The war affected everyone, she said, whether it was through ration stamps, volunteering, deployment or buying bonds.

"Everyone was involved in one way or another," she said. "It's not like what's going on now. I feel so bad for those men and women over in Iraq now. They are over there fighting, and everyone over here is walking around like nothing is going on. Nobody really seems to care."

Warren Heck died Feb. 7, 2007, at 84.

Every now and then, LaToura Heck pulls out a stack of letters and reads them, reliving the memories from 65 years ago, memories that often feel like yesterday.

"We were all so patriotic, we were doing our duty," she said. "We were happy to do our duty."

Contact reporter Jennifer A. Bowen at jbowen@bnd.com or 239-2667.

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