All that's standing in the way of the Dunbars' divorce is Brian Dunbar's unwillingness to sign the papers. And though his wife, Lieutenant Colonel Anne Dunbar, loves him as madly as she did on their wedding day eleven years ago, their differences--intensified by the pressures of career and family--are irreconcilable. Or so she thinks.
When a long-lost file lands on Anne's desk, she learns some unexpected lessons about love and trust from the remarkable story of a World War I 'Hello Girl' telephone operator. Marie Reynaud fought valiantly for love--a love immortalized in diary entries that transcended war and time. A love inspiring enough to save Anne's marriage?
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March 31, 2009
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Excerpt from The Hello Girl by Merline Lovelace
Harrisburg, PA March, 1918
I saw the most extraordinary advertisement in the Record-Journal today. The War Department is recruiting French-speaking women to serve as switchboard operators on the Western Front. I've worked for the American Telephone and Telegraph Company for almost a year now. I know the Army would take me!
When I rushed home to show the ad to Grandmama, however, she grew quite agitated and said that under no circumstances will she allow me to volunteer. She hasn't yet accepted that her petite Mimi, as she's always called me, is a woman grown and, despite her frequent objections, fully capable of traveling to downtown Harrisburg unescorted on the streetcar every day. Nor does she agree that every woman who works at a factory or munitions plant frees a man to fight. She believes a properly brought-up girl should support the war effort by knitting socks and selling Liberty Bonds. But I persevered and even Grand-mama grudgingly concedes I've become quite adept at my job.
Now, it appears, the Army needs me Over There. I want desperately to go, but will admit the prospect of crossing an ocean prowled by German U-boats quite terrifies me. I'll never forget that awful day three years ago, when we heard that the Lusita-nia had been torpedoed. More than a thousand passengers were lost, a good number of them Americans. The conflagration raging in Europe suddenly seemed all too real and not nearly as distant as the Isolationists insisted it must remain.
Since then, the United States has entered the war and U-boats have sunk so many of our ships that my stomach rolls at the mere thought of making my way up a gangplank. Yet I've known since the moment I read the advertisement that I must answer its call.
If I go to France, if I stand where David stood, perhaps in some small way I can help other doughboys like him and, pray God, begin to heal this weeping hole in my heart.
Washington, D.C. Present Day
When Lieutenant Colonel Anne Dunbar lifted the file from her in-basket that dreary March afternoon, she had no idea it would change her life.
She'd already put in a bitch of a day--one that looked to get significantly worse come five o'clock. Her strategy until then was to bury herself in work. That wasn't hard to do, given that she was one of only a handful of officers assigned to the Secretary of the Air Force's Personnel Council located at Andrews AFB, Maryland, right across the Potomac from Washington, D.C.
As head of the Air Force Awards and Decorations Board, Anne had no trouble keeping busy. So far that day, she'd had to explain to an irate general why one of his squadrons didn't qualify for an award reserved for units engaged in direct combat. Then she'd locked horns with a Pentagon staffer who'd submitted a meager paragraph as justification for the air force's second highest medal. She'd also drafted two decision memoranda, chaired a review board and attended a one-hour meeting that ran to three and a half.
So she was in no mood for practical jokes, which was what she thought she'd been handed when she read the cover note attached to the file. Frowning, Anne lifted the phone and punched the direct line for the NCO who screened and forwarded awards requiring Secretarial level approval.
"Tech Sergeant Jenkins," he answered in his gravelly bass.
"It's Colonel Dunbar. I'm looking at the file you forwarded from the Air Force History Office. Please tell me this is a joke."
"Your memo says it contains a recommendation for a Distinguished Flying Cross based on an act of heroism performed in 1918"
"You also indicate the act was performed by someone attached to the Army."
"That's another rog."
Anne drummed her fingers on her desk. Jenkins was a good man. He knew his stuff. Yet she couldn't shake the feeling that he was pulling her leg.
"Okay, I'll bite. You know as well as I do that the air force didn't become a separate service until 1947. If this recommendation is for real..."
She let her voice trail off, half expecting him to 'fess up.
"The History Office says it's legit,"he responded. "They found it buried in the archives, stuck inside another folder."
"Then it's an Army matter. We don't have the authority to approve awards for acts that occurred before the air force was more than a twinkle in the War Department's eye."
"Ordinarily I'd agree with you, ma'am, but the recommendation wasn't actually written until two months after we became a separate service, so the Army kicked it over to us to handle. You might want to check the signature on the letter of endorsement. I tabbed it with a paper clip."
Anne flipped through a half dozen or so yellowed pages. Her eyes widened at the bold, slashing signature.
"Good Lord! This is signed by John J. Pershing, General of the Armies."
"Yes, ma'am. We've got us a piece of history here."
"History, yes. Something that falls within our authority to review or approve, doubtful."
"I wasn't sure, either. That's why I bucked it up to you."
Lips pursed, Anne stared at the signature. She wasn't a paper pusher by trade. Until this assignment, she'd always worked in communications. She'd served in every capacity from satellite transmissions analyst to manager of secure voice systems for the White House and the National Security Agency switchboards. Her toughest job was leading a combat communications unit in Afghanistan. The experience she'd gained there had brought her to this "career-broadening" assignment with the Secretary of the Air Force's Personnel Council.
Anne had to admit working at SAF/PC was indeed an eye-opening experience. Despite being chained to a desk, she took fierce pride in assuring that the people who'd made such heroic sacrifices for their country received the recognition they deserved.
Which, apparently, involved reviewing a recommendation for a Distinguished Flying Cross acknowledging an act of heroism performed almost a century ago.
"I'll take a look at the file," she promised Jenkins before hanging up.
Then she'd send it back to the Army.
Or not, she amended when she read General Pershing's endorsement and saw that the nominee was one Marie Reynard Wilson, U.S. Signal Corps.
"Well, well," Anne murmured, reaching for her mug. "A fellow communicator."
Sipping the black sludge that passed for coffee this late in the afternoon, she read General Pershing's endorsement more carefully. He offered an apology for the tardiness of the submission and indicated that it had only recently come to his attention that Mrs. Wilson had not received appropriate recognition for her heroic conduct in the face of the enemy on September 25,1918.
Under the endorsement lay a form letter signed by a low-level clerk acknowledging receipt at the War Department. That was followed by another form letter dated six months later transmitting the recommendation to the newly formed United States Air Force.
Someone in the air force channels had drafted a letter disapproving the award, but it wasn't signed or dated. The final document in the file was a summary sheet listing the address for Mrs. Marie Reynard Wilson as 234 Fremont Street, Santa Clara, California.
That was it. No narrative description of the heroic act. No citation to accompany the medal. No substantive justification for the nation's second-highest award for heroism under fire.
Still, there was that signature to take into account. Obviously BlackJack Pershing had thought Mrs. Wilson deserved the DFC.
Tapping a nail against her coffee mug, Anne considered her options. Her gut told her this was an Army matter and should be decided by green-suiters. On the other hand, the Army had shuffled the recommendation to the Air Force back in '47.
"And we lost it," she murmured to the aged and absent Mrs. Wilson. "I guess the least we can do after all this time is have a look-see."
She'd do a little research, she decided. See what she could dig up. After so many years, a few more days wouldn't matter.
Or would they?
It suddenly occurred to Anne that the intended recipient might still be alive. If so, she'd be hanging on by her fingernails.
Driven by a sense of urgency, Anne buzzed her secretary. "Judy, I need you to try and track down a Mrs. Marie Reynard Wilson."
She rattled off the California address and was about to hang up when her assistant broke in with a reminder.
"Don't forget your five o'clock appointment.You'd better get going if you want to make it."
Anne's stomach knotted, sending the bitter coffee back up and into her throat. She'd been so intrigued by the dusty file that she'd almost forgotten the ugliness ahead of her. Swallowing the acrid taste of bile, she closed the folder.
"Thanks, Judy. I'm leaving now."
Belting her dark blue air force overcoat, she left her office toting a briefcase bulging with unfinished work.
"See you tomorrow, Judy."
"Yes, ma'am." A look of sympathy crossed the older woman's face. "Hope your appointment goes well."
A private person, Anne rarely discussed her personal life but she and Judy had grown close in the eight months they'd worked together.