Arizona Veteran Receives Forgotten Letters in Washington | California News
By MacKENZIE DEXTER, Kingman Miner
KINGMAN, Ariz. (AP) — Sitting around the dining room table at Kingman, 92-year-old Korean War veteran LeRoy Wissinger is surrounded by his children and the forgotten letters he and his family have traded about 70 years ago while in the Navy.
Sporting his USS Alstede, AF 48 sweatshirt, Wissinger tells his son, Wayne and daughter, Arlene Rush, stories sparked by letters he recently received in the mail from Bellingham, Washington.
The letters were discovered by the Harris family as children, who bought the house from the Wissingers and discovered the letters in the crawl space in the late 1960s.
The letters were correspondence between Wissinger, his wife, MaryAnn, and family members from 1951 to 1954.
They include a rose-stained, “sealed with a (lipstick) kiss” letter from his wife, birthday and holiday cards, and comic book clippings.
Wissinger’s life changed when he received his draft notification after retrieving the couple’s marriage license.
While the two met in elementary school in Fife, Washington, they didn’t start dating until high school.
At age 20, LeRoy married MaryAnn on Treasure Island, which is outside of San Francisco, then soon set sail on the USS Alstede.
“We were supposed to go talk to the Navy chaplain, and the Navy chaplain said to us, ‘I have to warn you, these military marriages don’t last.’ And we had been married for 63 years,” Wissinger said.
He spent his years on the ship, which transported food and supplies from Oakland, California to Sasebo, Japan.
While not in combat, Wissinger recalls the time his ship got too close to a battleship. He remembers shells from 16-inch guns hitting the ground.
Although they did not deliver mail at sea, Wissinger received many letters when his ship returned to the United States to pick up more supplies. Each trip from Oakland to Japan took about 14 days.
The Wissinger family is overwhelmed by the number of letters and randomly reads them before arranging them.
Wissinger found MaryAnn’s letter announcing the birth of their first son, Lloyd, and read it to his family 70 years later.
“My dear husband and dad…” Wissinger said, reading MaryAnn’s April 10, 1952 letter during her first days as a new mother.
Wissinger also found letters referring to his brother – Jim or “Uncle Jimmy” as Arlene and Wayne called him. Jim, then 17, also served in the war around the same time as LeRoy.
“It was just exciting because he was picking them up and remembering first and last names, teachers’ names and I was like, ‘Oh, my God! ‘” Arlene said.
Years after returning from the sea, LeRoy and MaryAnn bought a house in Bellingham in 1960 for $10,000.
The couple welcome their third child, Wayne, a week after moving in.
Arlene remembers calling it a “white house” because it was all white and huge.
LeRoy took a fifth year of college at Western Washington College, now Western Washington University, to gain more experience for a better-paying job.
The hundreds of letters were placed in a crawl space under Bellingham’s house.
MaryAnn’s school photos, a high school leaving certificate and cards were also in the letter mix.
Wissinger and his family moved to another house in Ferndale, Washington, and neglected the letters tucked in the crawl space.
Heather Harris Ezrre and her sister, Holly Harris, moved into the house as children in the late 1960s.
Holly said she and her brother Timothy were “exploring” the crawl space one day when they were children and discovered a moldy box. It was then that the “Wissinger letters” were discovered intact.
“We were always digging,” Holly Harris said.
While the siblings were little when they discovered the letters, they understood their value. Both Heather and Holly, who is now a historian, said the letters were important to their own family history as they were discovered in the house their family also grew up in.
“We always realized it was important to their family history,” Heather said.
The Wissinger letters remained in storage along with the rest of the Harris family archives. Heather said the letters are now part of their own family history as they are meant to protect the Wissinger family treasures.
“Our family has also been in savings,” Heather said. “They remained in the archives with our family.”
Due to the amount of letters, they only read a few while they had them. However, the one that stood out was MaryAnn’s letter sharing Lloyd’s birth.
While the sisters still wanted to return the letters to the Wissingers, they didn’t know how to go about it. It wasn’t until they researched LeRoy on the internet that they found contact information for Eagle Realty, the Wissinger family’s company in Kingman.
They immediately called the listed number and Wayne answered the phone in disbelief. “She just called the number and I answered,” Wayne said.
The Wissingers moved to Lake Havasu City in 1970, and LeRoy took a job teaching woodworking. In 1976 he transferred to Kingman High School to teach in the carpentry shop.
Wissinger got his real estate license in 1982 and opened Eagle Realty in 1991, which is now run by Wayne.
After moving to Arizona, the family didn’t give much thought to the letters left in the crawl space. In fact, the entire house they owned in Bellingham was physically moved to another location to accommodate a new parking lot at Western Washington University.
Once contacted by Heather, LeRoy and his family were able to delve into the past and reminisce about good times in life during a difficult time.
The letters also allow the family to share stories about their beloved mother and wife, MaryAnn, who died in 2014 of Alzheimer’s disease. She spent the last nine months of her life in her home surrounded by those she loved the most.
“Our family was always fun,” Arlene said. “There are issues with every family, but we all have great memories.”
LeRoy’s kids laughed and explained how the 92-year-old has retired “at least four times” but doesn’t like to sit still.
The letters covering the dining room table should occupy him for a while.
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