By Jenny McNeece, Vincennes Sun-Commercial
Vincennes, IN (AP) – Otto Fuhrman used to hide things in the rafters.
So when his son-in-law, Dave Arvin, reached above a metal heating duct in Otto’s basement and felt his hand brush a dusty paper bag, he wasn’t terribly surprised.
“He was famous for sticking things up there,’’ Arvin said with a smile and a shake of his head. “When I pulled the bag out, I didn’t recognize it. I thought, `What is this?’
“But then I got to really looking at it. I saw they were letters,’’ the enormity of that moment still, years later, causing his eyes to moisten. “I looked at the addresses, the dates, and then I realized what I had.’’
There were hundreds of them, yellowed pages, their edges ripped and frayed from repeated readings, the ink faded in places where a cup of tea likely once sat.
But within their creased and weathered pages was a love story for the ages, one belonging to Otto and his sweetheart, Jean Hughes.
Otto, a Loogootee native, joined the Army in the fall 1942 as did so many other 20-something men that year. And for the next three years, Otto and Jean would write one another everyday sometimes two or three times a day sharing in the rather mundane details of their respective days, offering encouragement in the face of loneliness and, more than anything, declaring their love and commitment for the other until they could be together again.
“Well, my darling, how are you?’’ Otto writes on Sept. 11, 1942. “Tell me you’ve been a good girl. That’s the most important thing to me.
“Be good to me. Stay true to me,’’ he writes, the desperation permeating through the blue ink. “For my darling, I love you.’’
“I hope to be with you before long,’’ he writes in another, this one dated Jan. 28, 1943. “The war news is good. I hope they keep licking the devil out of them, don’t you, my dear?
“If I end up back in Indiana soon, boy, I think I might say that I like the Army,’’ he writes. “But if I don’t get to see you before long, honey, I don’t see how I can care much about it.’’
Jean, who was living with her family in Loogootee, is endlessly optimistic in her replies, even as the couple faces their first Christmas apart.
“Otto, I sure do miss you,’’ she writes on Christmas Eve in 1942. “But I made up my mind the day you left that I’m going to keep my chin up as high as I can. And I know a swell guy like you can, too. I know there will be lonesome times for us both, but, honey, just think of what fun we’ll have when it’s all over.
“And I’m sure that won’t be too long,’’ she writes, “especially if all of the soldiers are as grand as you are.’’
Jean offers Otto tales of going to the show in Washington with her girlfriends, shopping trips with family to Vincennes and Jasper, news of other soldiers, even Otto’s own brother, Homer. She speaks of her job at a local textile factory, Perfect Fit Industries.
She begins most every letter with, “My dearest sweetheart,’’ and ends it with “XOXOXOXOXO.’’
“I went to the show tonight again,’’ she writes to Otto in January 1943. “I’ve never been to so many shows in all my life. I think I’ll try a basketball game for a change.
“I think of you, honey, all the time,’’ she writes. “I love you more every day. I pass your house and see your car sitting in the drive. It seems like I should see you, too.’’
And news of a new sound system at work even prompted a bit of humor.
“We got a loud speaking system at the factory today,’’ she writes in February 1943. “They play music while we work. Talk about being ritzy, aren’t we? But today they played the `Star Spangled Banner,’ and I think half the plant started crying.
“I think they’d better not play it anymore,’’ she writes.
Otto was ordered to the U.S. Army’s 99th Infantry Division in the fall of 1942 and stationed at Mississippi’s Camp Van Dorn, the location from which the majority of his letters to Jean came. The 99th came to be known as the Checkerboard Division, a name that originates from soldiers’ shoulder patch design, a five-sided black shield with a horizontal band of blue and white squares.
According to Camp Van Dorn’s website, one dedicated to the history of the men who served there, division commander Major Gen. Walter Laurer described life there as a “tarpaper shanty town sprawled across the red mud of the southern Mississippi.’’
“Men of the (99th infantry division) not only faced basic training,’’ Laurer said, “but one of the most miserable winters in years,’’ evident by one of Ottos’ letters dated February 1943.
“I got two hours sleep last night,’’ he wrote to Jean. “Boy that guard business, I don’t care much about. It was awful spooky too, dear. Thirty some trucks, not a light within a quarter of a mile and, boy, that wind was a bearing down on them old canvas tents and making a lot of queer noises.
“But I made it.’’
In another letter dated February 10, 1943, he asks Jean to send him a picture, an image of love and home to help him get through the cold nights.
“Sweetheart, send me a picture. Any size you like. But be sure and send me one soon so I can sit and look at it at night when I am writing.
“Maybe then I would feel better about this place, but I don’t think anything could help me. I will have to learn to get over it myself, I suppose.’’
The 99th completed basic and advance training at Camp Van Dorn then moved on to Louisiana in the fall of 1943.The moment Otto and Jean had been dreading all along the big move “across,’’ as they would come to commonly call his impending deployment to the war was inching ever closer.
And it is in those days Jean leans on fellow war sweetheart Mary Jane Deakin, a Michigan native whose husband, Chuck, was in the 99th with Otto. Scattered among Jean and Otto’s letters are a few dozen between the two women, their words evidence of a loyal friendship, one that, as it turns out, would last years.
“Don’t you just hate the thought of Otto and Chuck getting sent across,’’ Mary Jane writes to Jean in late 1943. “I get sick all over when I think about it. I’m so lonesome, Jean, I can barely stand it.’’
The 99th arrived in England in October 1944. From there they moved into France then to Belgium. Their campaign included Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace and Central Europe, but perhaps they are best known for their part in the infamous Battle of the Bulge.
Troops held fast on the northern shoulder of the German advance, refusing them access to the vital northern road network that led into Belgium.
“They were just beefed up just for the war, and after that, they were disbanded,’’ said Jim Osborne, founder and curator of the Indiana Military Museum, said of Otto’s division. “They sure did get in the thick of the battle, though.’’
Unfortunately, Otto’s letters to Jean stop just before he was sent into England. Or, perhaps, maybe they’re stuck in some undiscovered corner of the home the couple once shared in Loogootee.
“Someone writing this much,’’ Osborne said, wrapping his arms around the multiple boxes of letters, “well, he wouldn’t have just stopped once he got over there.
Goodwill Cemetery, where Otto & Jean are buried
“I’ve never seen this many letters,’’ he said.
But if there are more letters, Abbie Arvin, Jean and Otto’s only daughter, hasn’t found yet them.
But she knows how the story ends just the same.
Otto was injured, shot in the leg, during the Battle of the Bulge and eventually sent home. The two married on Feb. 10, 1946, and less than a year later, they had Abbie. She would later move to Vincennes with Dave, who worked at Mitchell Furniture.
Otto spent a long career working at what is now the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division but for Otto’s generation was always known as “the Depot,’’ and Jean worked for a while longer at the local factory, Abbie said.
Times were tough, but Otto built his Jean her own home, oftentimes with materials he got from here, there and everywhere. All of the windows in the home, Dave says, are different sizes as they came from a multitude of different places.
Abbie, however, doesn’t necessarily remember the sweethearts whose story jumps from the pages of the aged letters. Likely plagued with memories of wartime horrors, Otto retreated, spending much of his time with his father, a veteran of World War I, in a little cabin the two built together in rural Loogootee.
In the early 1970s, the hardships of daily life and a history plagued with the toils of war led to the demise of the marriage, Abbie said, and her parents divorced.
Otto withdrew to his tiny cabin in the woods, but he couldn’t get far from his sweetheart, Jean.
“They would always go out and eat, do this or that,’’ Abbie recalled. “Anything she needed or wanted, he made sure she had.’’
“They stayed together really,’’ Dave added. “He’d come on a Sunday night. She’d fix him supper. And once he knew he would die, he decided to close ranks. They became even closer after that.’’
When Otto’s health began to fail suddenly in 1985, he returned to his Jean, never moving back into their Loogootee home, but needing her love and support nonetheless.
He died just a few days before his 65th birthday that same year. She came along in 2006, and they’re buried side-by-side in Loogootee’s Goodwill Cemetery.
Abbie has yet to read the letters, fearful somehow of meeting the people whose love story has been hidden within their pages for more than 70 years.
“Someday,’’ she said, her voice breaking. “I will, someday.’’
Until then, “oodles and oodles of love to you, my darling,’’ Otto writes, a phrase he uses often to close a letter. “You are the only woman for me.’’