March 25, 2010 in Washington Voices

No one, not even captors, could remove the ring

By The Spokesman-Review

Nancy and Jerry Gleesing married during World War II, before he left to Europe to copilot a B-24 Liberator. When his plane was shot down, Nancy, who had just given birth, didn’t know if he was alive.
(Full-size photo)

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On June 1, Jerry and Nancy Gleesing will celebrate their 66th wedding anniversary – a milestone by anyone’s measure. Yet the Gleesings would be the first to tell you the course of their true love has had its share of turbulence.

In 1940, Jerry heard a new girl had moved to his hometown of LaMoure, N.D., and he kept his eyes peeled. There wasn’t much excitement in the small town, so the arrival of a young lady was big news. Jerry first spotted her on his way to the ballpark. Her dark hair and dimples captivated him.

“I was 15,” Gleesing recalled. “Quite a bit older than she – I was born in August, Nancy in September.” Alas, his status of older man by a month failed to impress the new girl. “She didn’t even speak to me for the first six months,” he said, shaking his head. “She was a lot smarter than I thought she was.”

But Jerry was smitten and he was persistent. By their senior year, they were an “item.” At their Spokane Valley home, Nancy recalled their first date with a smile. “He brought me violets.”

In fact, one of their dates became legendary at their small school. “We skipped school one day and had our pictures taken,” Nancy said. “We got caught.” As a result, when the entire school went on a field trip, Jerry and Nancy were the only two left behind. They didn’t mind. Years later at a high school reunion, the day Nancy and Jerry skipped school was still a hot topic.

In 1942, at 18, Jerry enlisted in the Army Air Corps and left for basic training. Though she missed him, Nancy said, “I knew it was something he had to do.” While he went through basic training and then on to flight school, she joined the Army Nurses Corps and served for six months.

“We got married when I got my wings,” Jerry recalled. Soon their first child was on the way. While the war raged in Europe, the couple took comfort in dreaming about their baby. They were sure it would be a son. “We were having Michael,” Nancy said, as she remembered that time.

All too quickly, Jerry received orders to leave for Italy and had to leave his wife and unborn child. “It was hard,” Nancy admitted.

Things didn’t go well for her husband. “I was shot down on my second mission,” he said. “We nursed the plane along until we got to Hungary.” He and his crew had to bail out. Jerry laughed. “We never learned how to bail out, just how to fly the plane!”

They were immediately taken prisoner. He’ll never forget that first night of captivity. “They lined us up on one side of the courtyard. Five German soldiers with guns stood opposite – you didn’t know whether they were going to use those guns.” He paused and cleared his throat before continuing the story. “I did pray. I prayed for Michael,” he said referring to his unborn child.

Meanwhile, back in North Dakota, Nancy grew worried. “The letters stopped on Jan. 5,” she said. For 10 days there was no word. Then a telegram arrived, reporting Jerry as missing in action. She prepared for their child’s birth, not knowing her husband’s fate.

Jerry had been taken to a prison camp, and as he was being processed, the guard pointed to his wedding ring and motioned for Jerry to remove it. But after days of uncertainty and fear, that was where Jerry drew the line. “I didn’t give up my wedding ring. I said, ‘I vowed to never take it off. I’m not taking it off.’” The guard stared at him and motioned again for the ring. Jerry simply shook his head. “They let me keep it,” he said.

In February 1945, Nancy gave birth to a daughter. “Turns out it wasn’t Michael, it was Mary Jean,” she said, smiling. In those days babies were taken from their mothers and cared for in the hospital nursery. “I guess I did a little bit of crying,” Nancy said. The doctor told the nurses, “Don’t you read the newspaper? Her husband is MIA. You give her that baby any time she wants.”

After three and a half months as a prisoner of war, Jerry’s camp was liberated. “We saw the tanks come over the hill,” he recalled. “Everyone was whooping and hollering. Then our flag was raised, and it was dead silent.” His voice broke. “It was like coming home.”

And come home he did, just in time for their first wedding anniversary. Jerry graduated from North Dakota State University and taught agricultural education at a local high school for several years. He then moved on to a career with a commercial agriculture firm, eventually moving to Spokane in 1971.

He and Nancy raised seven children. As they talked about their six decades together, they debated details, times and places. “We argue a lot for some reason,” Jerry said. And across the room Nancy stuck her tongue out at him.

But though they may squabble, the vows they took in 1944 hold firm. “There’s something about a commitment,” said Jerry. He looked down at his left hand. The sun glinted off his narrow gold wedding ring. “It’s still there,” he said. “I’ve never taken it off.”

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