Wilmington historian Wilbur D. Jones Jr. spent countless hours researching World War II, military, and defense issues for 18 books, lectures, preservation efforts, and battlefield tours in Europe and the Mediterranean. This story is about a different war and a more personal research project -- the World War I love affair of his parents.
Reflecting on my parents' World War I love affair always puzzled me. How could two unlikely people -- one an eighth-grade girl, the other, 11 years her senior and an enlisted sailor, -- sustain a 46-year relationship ending only by death?
They left letters, scrapbooks, photographs, artifacts, and a wedding book, later the core of my family papers at the University of North Carolina Wilmington's Randall Library. Occasionally I reminisced through them and other items nestled in storage boxes, but not as a historian.
For whatever reasons, we rarely discussed the details of their courtship. Most of what I know was found among the mementos from 100 years ago, and years of observing the two of them.
Where They Came From
They met on January 13, 1918, at her home at 1917 Pender Avenue in Wilmington, North Carolina. He turned 26 on February 25, a month before her 15th birthday. On June 8, she wrote a poem about that first encounter, something had clicked.
Wilbur David Jones Sr. was born in Onslow County, North Carolina, and Viola Elizabeth Murrell was born in Wilmington.
He came from a large tenant dirt farmers' family along the White Oak River and never entered high school. His official Navy record notes he was 5-foot-4 and 119 pounds, with blue eyes, black hair, a ruddy complexion, and numerous body scars.
Mother, slightly taller, originally lived on North Fifth Street, the wrong side of the railroad tracks. Her education ended after graduation from Hemenway Grammar School in May 1918.
My grandfather, Joseph Murrell, had divorced my grandmother, Hattie, and moved to Norfolk, Virginia, sometimes neglecting to send their allowance. Hattie supported three children by keeping the Front Street public restroom.
Mother and Daddy's relationship developed within early 20th-century lower-class norms. Lacking pedigrees, they achieved middle-class Wilmington economic levels from Daddy's business acumen, community service and reputation.
"On a real, real cold night
A little girl was filled with fright.
This little girl was to meet a boy
Who afterwards filled her heart with joy.
The clock struck eight and in he came,
And when she saw him she did not blush with shame.
He told her his name and she did the same,
Wilbur Jones & Viola Murrell are the two lovers' names.
At half past ten he rose to go,
And told her how he liked her so." -- Viola
His Naval Service, 1918-19
America declared war on Germany in April 1917. In March, Daddy enlisted as a hospital apprentice and began training at the Naval Hospital in Charleston, South Carolina. He later achieved promotion to hospital apprentice first class.
After Germany surrendered in November 1918, for six months in 1919 he treated Marines at a field hospital in Santiago, Dominican Republic. American forces landed there during the 1916 Dominican civil war to protect U.S. and international interests.
The photograph album he assembled recorded primitive native existence and Marines at leisure.
Discharged in August 1919, he took a business course in Alexandria, Virginia, and in 1920 joined Wilmington's Carolina Building and Loan Association for a 44-year career. The building at 201 Princess Street still stands.
Meanwhile, Mother tended house. They met regularly and their love swelled.
"One day Uncle Sam gave him his cry,
And then he bade his girl goodbye.
He has not been gone very long,
But still her heart keeps him in song.
And now he's trying to win her heart
Because he does not want to part.
"He wants to be where he can see
His little girl when he is free.
Each night she says a prayer for him
Who she has loved so well to win.
And when they settle down for life,
They'll drive away care and strife." -- Viola
Her Eighth Grade Graduation
Their handwriting, his especially, and expressions show a relative command of 1918 discourse, passions and insightful uncertainties. Mother's information is more detailed: sensitive to her life station, loyal, creative, a lover, dreamer and romantic poet, whose thoughts waver between adult realism one week, girlhood infatuation the next. Her lifelong patterns began appearing. With love for family and friends, she matured into an active, conscientious and respected community volunteer servant.
Mother enjoyed fantasizing about the future.
"If I loved a man, I'd stick to him to, & no one else can pull me away. Because I'm one of these kind. It will be a precious time when you come to see me. Oh! Gee, I wish it was tomorrow."
There is mention of a boyfriend named Garland.
"He came by and took pictures and said he is coming back, but I don't really know or care whether he does or not. He is a sentimental boy, & I like him alright but you can tell he's not used to going with the girls."
She spiced gossip with relationship theories and judgments: "That which he soweth, also shall he reap." I suppose she acted like other girls of her generation and place, and meant no harm. Through it all, with Daddy's participation, she laid the foundation for an enduring marriage.
Homebound by economic and social standing, she managed boredom by seeking outlets.
"It's go, go, or do, do something all the time. I'm chief cook and bottle washer. I need a rest but I don't know where I will get it."
Keeping three scrapbooks helped detour inactivity. She must have read, clipped and glued multitudes of magazine items -- the war, Americana patriotism and the military, poems, cartoons, happy scenes, fashion, children, animals, advertisements and anything heartfelt.
Determining whether her jottings are originals or someone else's is difficult. Meant for outside eyes, or just hers?
It was always Wilbur, although she jealously poked his Alexandria and Charleston experiences.
"Wilbur, have you forgotten the first night you came here? I haven't. I wonder who is that little Virginia maiden you are hearing from. Oh well I won't get jealous." Referring to "pretty girls," she continued: "When you come back I'll show you I know how too."
From Wrightsville Beach: "You mean to tell me you don't notice those good looking 'little angels' as I will call them. It isn't natural in a boy not to. If you ever marry or go with any I want you to always think of the little girl [me] you met."
How my Father accepted this disposition and nurtured their affection baffles me. He appears more settled and confident, for after all, he left the farm to patriotically volunteer for war service. He balanced her overtures with lower-key endearments, today rather mushy. Remember, he is 11 years older. Despite his roots, he remained the quintessential Southern gentleman.
"Dear you know that if this war was over I hardly see how I could let you wait many more years, that is if you would marry me."
"Sweetheart, I dream for you and I to be married for I know we could make a sweet little home. If I never come back [from the war] to be with you, why you can hardly say that your best friend on earth is gone. Though Viola back to you I am coming and, gee, that will be the happiest time of my life."
Exchanging photographs fueled their relationship. She requested more, promised more, and admired his Navy suit.
"My Dear Little Navy Boy: That picture is fine of you. But I really do think it would look better if you had on your glasses. I never did say that you were a bad looking guy did I?"
Imagine today an eighth grader and a grown man.
"I am still studying. I wish you could come to see me graduate. Memories, memories, dreams of love so true. Oh, dear, you know it's not always the age that counts is it?"
He sent a graduation ring.
"I am sorry I was not by your sweet side when you opened the jewelry. My love for you has started to grow and now from the depths of my heart I do love you better than any one on God's earth. I am glad your love for me is growing day by day. Dear I pray for you every day. Yes you are pretty and a healthy little girl. Dear it did sound so sweet to read that you expect to be mine in the near future. That gives me something to look forward to and live for."
In writing about Charleston sailors "roughing up girls in town," his religious upbringing surfaced.
"All boys and girls got to fall on their knees and ask the forgiveness of sin and try to live a true life, for the nation has forgotten personal health and are going to the bad."
"The Kaiser he went up the hill
To take a peek at France
The Kaiser he came down the hill
With bullets in his pants"
"Viola is my name.
Single is my station.
Happy be the little man
That makes the alteration."
And: "When the cruel war is ended
And the boys all come back,
Wonder who will rock the cradle,
Wilbur, Joe, or Jack?" -- Viola
Their 1921 Wedding
From late 1919 until their June 16, 1921 wedding, visits replaced letters. They were married in St. Andrews Presbyterian Church. She wore a navy blue coat-suit, he a business suit. One bridesmaid and the best man. No reception. Immediately they boarded their honeymoon train to Washington, D.C., Alexandria, and Mount Vernon.
At the Capitol she wrote, "Wilbur tried to get me to sit in the president's chair, but I would not do so -- because at that time we had a Republican president."
They visited his relatives in Maysville, North Carolina.
"Dear old mother and father. They looked on this face of mine. They seemed to like it and told my husband they thought he did a very wise and intelligent thing by choosing such a girl."
In 1922 Viola Elizabeth was born. Ten years later their second child, Helen Blanche, died at age 2. I was born July 9, 1934, at 2004 Pender Avenue. Both parents died here, Daddy in 1967 and Mother in 1973, and lie in Oakdale Cemetery.
I've never fully solved the opening puzzle I posed, except to appreciate deeply that their profound love never ended, and consequently strongly influenced the positive way they prepared me for life.
How fortunate I am.
"Dear I cannot live without you
For life with you is in vain.
Come tell me that you love me
And ease my aching pain.
"Oh! I long for your smiling face
And your merry eyes of blue
To hold you always near me dear
And whisper that my love is true.
"I long for the day to claim you
For the time to call you my own.
We'll live so happy forever
In a bungalow of our own." -- Viola