A&E

Saturday talk in Menlo Park: 'She Also Served'

Letters from a Navy wife tell of World War II life in Menlo Park and beyond

Christine Witzel will read from the book, "She Also Served," on Saturday, April 4, in the Menlo Park City Council Chambers at the Civic Center, 701 Laurel St. The free event starts at 11 a.m. Refreshments will be served, and free van service is available for Menlo Park area seniors and people with disabilities by calling 330-2512.

By Sandy Brundage | Almanac Staff Writer

Shops with luxury goods line Santa Cruz Avenue these days. It's hard to imagine a Menlo Park where candy was hard to come by and white socks for children impossible, but the letters Virgilia Short Witzel wrote during World War II show that those days weren't so long ago.

Her daughter, Christine Witzel, who was born after the war, has compiled her mother's letters into a book, "She Also Served: Letters from a Navy Wife." The book contains excerpts about living in Menlo Park and later China during the war, and in London during the 1950s.

Christine came across the letters in a storage unit after her mother died in Sharon Heights in 2004. "I knew they existed, but I didn't know how many existed," Christine said. "I had no idea of the vast treasure trove that was there."

After her husband, Naval Lt. Cmdr. Frederick Witzel, was sent to sea, Virgilia and her oldest daughter, Joanna, lived in a small white cottage dubbed "the snuggery" in Menlo Park, located behind her parents' house. She was busy growing a victory garden and helping the civilian defense committee.

One letter dated Feb. 26, 1943, says: "Today was very busy. In the morning, I walked from home to home on Fremont collecting stockings for the salvage drive. One old man gave me a large shopping bag overflowing with what looked like the savings of forty years. This afternoon I made bandages at Red Cross. The Army asked for 185,000 in a hurry."

Another letter hints at a dash of Scarlett O'Hara. On March 28, 1943, Virgilia wrote: "Since my carrots, beets, radishes and lettuce are up, I feel a great, great interest in the garden. It is now a grim battle between me and the birds and, by God, I shall not yield!"

Christine said she hopes readers gain an appreciation for women of her mother's generation, and the challenges and privileges of being a military wife at the time.

For her part, she's gotten to know her mother as a younger person. "When I was a teenager in the 1960s, it was frivolous," Christine noted with a laugh. "She was very gracious, and having standards and knowing how to entertain was hugely important to her. I was more interested in issues of the 1960s and didn't understand. But this helped me understand why she was the way she was. She had to do these patriotic things during the war."

Memories of adoring her mother as a child are strong, but so are those of very difficult teenage years. "Mark Twain wrote that his parents improved greatly after he became a little older. After I grew up, I began to appreciate her more. But I didn't fully understand her until I read these letters," Christine said.

Virgilia had a sense of playfulness that surprised her younger daughter when it shone through tales of officers getting drunk at a party in Nanking, or in how her mother tried to minimize the family's struggles during the war so as to not alarm her own parents.

"The best example is: 'If you heard about the rioting, think nothing of it,'" Christine recalled. "She talks about how, 'Oh, Dad has a touch of malaria' ... and Dad's letter to his mother was describing how he felt he was near death. She's writing about how convenient it is that the hospital is in the same building they're in!"

Sometimes a hint of the horrors of war made a subtle appearance. "One day she did confess that she felt low: 'Do you suppose the world will ever be peaceful and normal again, or will our lives always be in turmoil?' But that's about as bad as she got, I think."

Christine and her sister faced some hard choices when deciding how and what to include in the letters released to the public, given that Virgilia was "a very private person." They tried to choose letters that were of historical importance or particularly well-written, and opted to not edit some politically incorrect references that reflect the mores of that time.

"After talking it over, Joanna and I decided to let mother speak for herself and her era," Christine said.

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