SEATTLE – Not all veterans are the ones who wore uniforms.
Some serve in the daily battles of home, and family, and worry; their enemy is The Unknown.
Others are there when war arrives, dropping bombs, rattling homes and making those men in uniform a daily sight, for better and for worse.
So when Fred Diedrich, 97, marks Veterans Day, the former Army paratrooper who jumped into European battlegrounds during World War II will do it with his British-born wife, Nancy, 92, who has her own relationship with war.
Their 75-year marriage was forged in their experiences, and the knowledge that life is a finite thing, not to be deliberated, but taken on and built on a foundation of hope, strength and, eventually, love.
“I had been through five years of war, from age 11,” Nancy Diedrich remembered, sitting with her husband in the Green Lake home they share with their younger son and his wife. “We had experienced various types of bombings and adapted. But it was not easy.”
Behind enemy lines
Fred Diedrich was one of seven kids from Coos Bay, Oregon, who enlisted in the Army at 19 to get to explore and make money. After training as a paratrooper at Fort Benning, Georgia, he joined the 82nd Airborne Division, then was stationed at an estate-turned-Army base called Wollaton Park in Nottinghamshire, England, with the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
He made three drops into Europe, including parachuting just inland of Normandy Beach at 2 a.m. to defend two bridges.
“On each jump, I would think, ‘How the heck did I get into this mess?’ ” he said.
He also took part in Operation Market Garden to take and defend bridges in the Netherlands; and served in the ground forces in the Battle of the Bulge. After one off-target landing, he was rounded up by American soldiers who thought he was a German soldier who had stolen one of their comrade’s uniforms.
They lined him up with others, preparing to shoot him, but first grilled him – What was the U.S. president’s name? Who won the World Series? – until a passing soldier recognized him, called out his name and vouched for him. His captors let him go.
After the war ended, Diedrich served in the Honor Guard in Berlin, where he slept in bombed-out hotels.
A chance encounter amid warIn the middle of his service, in 1944, Diedrich was riding a bike in Beeston, a town near his base, when his hat flew off. Two girls walking to play tennis called after him, laughing. He slid on his heels to a stop, grabbed his hat and joined them, to watch them play. After their game, one of the girls, Nancy Stanley, invited him to her family’s home for tea.
Nancy had been trying to live a teenager’s life in wartime: Seeing friends, playing tennis and going to school, where she wore a mask and learned poems about chemical gases – one she can still recite.
“We were running, ducking, wearing masks and having tea after raids,” she said, her British accent faint but present.
She remembered when a 2,000-pound live bomb landed unexploded along the River Trent, near her house, drawing the whole town to watch it be defused. For years after, kids would clamber on it like a jungle gym.
One day, her brother, a member of the Royal Air Force, brought home three American soldiers for Sunday dinner. She still remembers their names and faces, the way they laughed, and their hometowns in states she would never see.
A week later, they would be killed at Normandy.
“Lovely guys,” she said, quietly. “Cheerful, happy, jolly. That was the worst.
“When we learned they had been killed, it broke our hearts into a million pieces.
“There had been so many deaths and we had had enough of it. You needed to turn the page.”
After the tennis courts, Fred and Nancy had met in person only three times – once to go to the movies – before he was sent off to Market Garden in 1944. Before he left, he asked her to write to him.
“I was very young and it was very exciting,” Nancy said. “He had little blue letters in bunches whenever roll call was made.”
“Big bundles with string tied around them,” Fred said. “I remember reading them in the basement of a house with anti-aircraft fire started coming in.”
Later, British Third Army soldiers found them and wrote to Nancy: “Why is a nice English girl writing to a Yankee? Why don’t you write to us?”
Then came the letter from Fred that simply said: “We ought to get married.” Nancy’s written reply: “Yes!”
His letters had become more loving as the months went by, she said.
“He would say, ‘I love you.’ And that’s nice, if someone loves you.”
Did she love him?
“I didn’t know him, so how could I?”
“I can’t answer that, either,” Fred said.
They looked at each other before Nancy spoke: “How can anyone explain how two people, from two different countries, who had only seen each other three times could be married for 75 years?
“It was a mixture of many emotions, and love was in there, somewhere. And determination.”
They set a wedding date, Fred applied for furlough and Nancy found the church, collected rations for a cake and started making a dress.
Then Fred wrote with bad news: His furlough had been canceled.
Nancy wasn’t having it. She wrote to Gen. James Gavin, commander of the 82nd Airborne, who was called “Jumpin’ Jim” because he took part in combat jumps with the men under his command. The letter, which Nancy addressed to Gavin “Somewhere in Europe,” pleaded the young lovers’ case. Soon after, Fred was rounded up by two military officers, who left him standing before Gavin, who held up a blue letter in his hand.
“Do you want to get married?” the general asked the young soldier.
“Yes, sir,” he said.
Fred’s furlough was restored and he was put on Gavin’s personal plane, headed to England. He and Nancy were married on Oct. 22, 1945.
Leaving for a new life
The following May, Nancy joined 2,000 “war brides” on the Queen Mary, headed to America. Her parents drove her to London to put her on the train to the ship.
“They were sad,” she said. “It was very heartbreaking.”
Once in New York, the women boarded a train that traveled across the United States, Nancy watching her geography studies come to life. At each stop, women were let off. By the time the train got to Oregon, Nancy was one of just three women left.
She didn’t recognize Fred at first. His sharply cut hair had softened into curls, and his uniform was replaced by corduroys and an open shirt.
They set about their lives, Fred working in a plywood mill and Nancy working as a bookkeeper in a bank, a job for which she hired herself, she said, when she walked in and told the manager that she was his new employee.
They had two sons: Richard, a physician who lives in Bayfield, Colorado, and Paul, a structural engineer. The Diedrichs live with Paul and his wife, Betsy, in a home that overlooks Green Lake and that they built themselves.
They have four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
“What we’ve done, we’ve both accepted each other as we are and not tried to transform each other, because it wouldn’t have worked,” Nancy said.
“Don’t work all your life trying to change that person into a picture you want to draw for yourself,” she said. “People make their own problems by trying to tailor-make some kind of partner.”
“I think we did pretty good working together on things,” Fred said. “I think we were a good team.”
A team that started in wartime, and brought them each a lifetime of peace.
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