Lost & Found: A WWII sailor’s letters to his girl
BY CHRIS SMITH/The Press Democrat
LaVonne Hitchcock, a seeker of second-hand treasures, was mildly curious about a plastic bag that was full of old airmail envelopes and probably was destined for the recyling bin.
“I grabbed them, didn’t really pay much attention,” Hitchcock recalled of the purchase she made in February at one of Goodwill Industries’ daily end-of-the-line sales at its thrift store depot on Santa Rosa’s Yolanda Avenue. Everything piled onto the tables had failed to sell at Goodwill stores, so anything left behind by the crowd of flea-market vendors, junk aficionados, bargain shoppers, collectibles dealers and Craigslist re-sellers would be trucked off for recycling.
Petaluma resident Hitchcock, 45, buys and sells second-hand finds as a hobby. She figured the bag of envelopes – there looked to be about 100 – would cost her no more than a buck, so she snatched it up and placed it in her box of knickknacks and other small purchases.
As she recalls, she paid $5 for everything in the box. Later she opened the bag and read a couple of the letters inside the airmail envelopes. ”I had chills up and down my spine,” she recalled.
She quickly realized she’d come upon a cache of love letters written by a young sailor to the even younger girl he’d met before he shipped off to Pearl Harbor shortly before the onset of World War II.
He was Marx “Marky” Weil, a recruit of Jewish ancestry from Georgia. She was Joyce “Joy” Taff, an Episcopalian high-school student in Alameda. She turned 15 and he 20 in 1941, the year they met while he was stationed at the Alameda Naval Air Station.
Hitchcock saw that nearly all the letters were penned – beautifully – by him, and addressed to her. Each was numbered on the front of the envelope, and Hitchcock was sure that the loose lengths of twine she found in the bag had been used to bunch the letters according to year, from 1941 well into 1944.
The Petaluman read just enough of the letters, fewer than 10, to see that Marx had fallen in love with Joy, wooed her, returned to California to marry her, and then addressed her as his wife after he returned to war.
Some of Marx’s letters had words blacked out or cut out by military censors. Just the few that Hitchcock read suggested that the stack of one-way correspondence charted the merging of two lives from shortly after the initial meeting to the early days of marriage.
“I got completely sucked into the story, and wondering how the letters wound up at Goodwill,” Hitchcock said.
She came by a strong suspicion that the Weils or their family did not intend for the letters to be sold for a buck at the last Goodwill sale before the recyling bin.
Though a novice at Internet research, Hitchcock went online to see what she could learn about Marx and Joyce Weil. She discovered that Joyce died in Sonoma in the fall of 2010, at age 84, and that Marx was 90 when he passed away, also in Sonoma, in mid-2011.
On a geneology Website, Hitchcock found that the Weils had two daughters, one of whom lives in Sonoma Valley. She phoned Linda Cederborg and asked if she was the daughter of Joy and Marx Weil.
Cederborg’s husband, Stephen, heard his wife ask a stranger on the phone, “Why do you ask?” Then he watched her face light up.
Hitchcock had told Linda Cederborg that she’d found her father’s love letters to her mother, and asked if she would like them back. Cederborg could not get to Hitchcock’s home in Petaluma fast enough.
She arrived at Hitchcock’s front door, and she froze. Hanging from the door was an old-fashioned Christmas ornament, the glittering word, “Joy.” She had given her mother, Joy, exactly such an ornament only a few years ago.
Cederborg felt even more welcomed when Hitchcock invited her in and handed her the letters. Hitchcock would take no money for them, but she accepted a gift card to the new Acre Coffee in Petaluma and a box of dark chocolate salted caramels – her favorite.
Back at home near Sonoma, Cederborg looked through the old envelopes she had seen a few times but had never opened. She said she hadn’t felt entitled to them while her parents were alive.
And after her father died last summer, it wasn’t long before the letters were lost, presumably forever. Cederborg said she and her sister decided to have an estate sale at their parents’ house in the Lovall Valley area of Sonoma.
Their dad’s wartime love letters to their mom were in a small Navy trunk and were not supposed to be part of the sale. But the trunk was sold by mistake.
The sting of losing the letters had largely healed when, the better part of a year later, Hitchcock phoned from Petaluma to say she had them.
Cederborg said her mother also wrote a great many letters to her father, but he had no way to save them while serving as an aviator in the war. She believes the last time her mother would have looked at the letters was when she and Marx retired to Sonoma from Cupertino in 1987 and they put the trunk in the garage.
As a young woman, Cederborg said, her mom had numbered every one of the letters with a numeral on the front of the envelope. “There were 150 of them,” she said.
It appears there are still nearly 150. So far, the Weils’ daughter has read about a third of them. She’s not inclined to expose her parent’s courtship-by-airmail to the world, but she did share one of the earliest letters.
Cederborg believes her parents may have seen each other for the first time at a dinner or dance hosted in a home by an Alameda family eager to show homesick young servicemen some hospitality – while at the same keeping close track of their daughters.
Marx wrote in a letter postmarked Jan. 27, 1942, “Joy, please don’t think I’ve got a string of girlfriends because I’m a sailor. I did go out quite a lot at home but that was almost a year ago.”
“…I’ve not the slightest idea what you think of me and I know perfectly well I’m no prize package…If you only knew how much I’d like to tell people you’re my girlfriend.”
Cederborg said her parents married in her mother’s family home in 1944, while her father was home on leave. Her mom was 18 then, her dad 23.
They would have 66 years together.
“They were fiercely loyal to each other until the day my mother died” shortly after their anniversary in 2010, their daughter said.
What came after the letters was the end of the war and Marx Weil’s return to California. He remained in the Navy Reserves while working for the Navy as a civilian contract administrator. Joy taught ballet and worked in a series of office positions for Mervyn’s, Sears and DeAnza College in Cupertino.
They came to Sonoma Valley to visit the Cederborgs, fell in love with the area moved upon retiring when Joy was 61 and Marx 66. Marx served a stint as president of the Sonoma Valley Garden Club, and Joy as membership chairman of the League for Historic Preservation.
They died not quite nine months apart, leaving behind a loving legacy that includes a stack of rescued old letters their daughter in Sonoma is determined to forever keep close by.
It’s a rare treasure, an airmail letter in which your future father, a war-zone sailor all of 20 years old, writes to your future mother, a schoolgirl of 15, “I’d do anything for you, Joy. Won’t you add me to your list?”