Dear Billie: A WWII Love Story will be released on July 8th, 2022. It is my first work of non-fiction but perhaps my greatest labour of love. It tells the story of the romance during wartime of Roland “Vern” Ploughman and Lillian “Billie” Wenman through letters, the first dated January 27th, 1943. Ninety-one more followed with the last written in mid-August of 1945.
Lillian “Billie” Ploughman (née Wenman) passed away on January 22nd, 2019. She was my mother. On the following evening, my two brothers, myself and several of Billie’s grandchildren gathered in the living room of her apartment. In boxes filled with photographs and letters was a stack of letters tied with string. Many were of the old blue airmail style where the written page folded up in such a way as to form an envelope for mailing. On taking one out and opening it, I discovered it was written by my father during WWII. None of us had ever seen them before.
What began as excitement that our mother had left us such a gift turned to gratitude as I transcribed them one by one so a copy could be given to each member of the family. You see, I hadn’t realized how much my mother and father loved one another. We grow up seeing our parents in many lights – older than us, squabbling over the day-to-day worries, telling us what to do. Then there are the fun memories of vacations, and outings and laughter. My Dad loved to tease. My mother was the “straight man”. Many of the ideas I held of who my parents were began to be challenged by the content of the letters. Here were two very young people trying to navigate a relationship through a world war.
My mother was seventeen and my father nineteen when he wrote to her for the first time. He hadn’t even met her yet! But he’d heard good things about this girl. And meet they did, twice, before he shipped overseas. They would be reunited some seventy-odd letters later when he returned to Canada after being seriously wounded in Normandy. The final letters were written from June to August 1945 when my father visited his family in Bay Roberts, Newfoundland. He returned to his sweetheart in Toronto, and they were married in September.
The idea to research and write their saga formed during this process of discovery. My brothers and my parents’ grandchildren needed to know Vern and Billie’s story. Four of their grandchildren were born after Vern passed away in 1989, many years before his beloved Billie. Growing up in their home, my siblings and I heard our father talk down through the years about being wounded. We saw the scars on his legs and feet, watched him pull shrapnel from his flesh. We understood that one of the personal legacies of WWII was his survivor guilt. During Operation Totalize in August 1944, the Canadians suffered substantial losses. Vern served as a gunner in a Sherman tank with the 22nd Armoured Regiment (Canadian Grenadier Guards) so he knew many of them personally. He never forgot them. He never talked about combat. He told us about the men who never got to come home. In doing so, he shaped many of my perceptions around friendship and duty.
History was a subject I despised in school. When high school studies were over, I went to work. It would be years before I decided to pursue a university education. In my second semester at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Professor Gerhard Bassler (now professor emeritus) offered a history course on the first half of the twentieth century. The Cold War wasn’t too distant in the rear-view mirror, so my first paper focused on how it began. In researching it, I discovered George F. Kennan, an American diplomat who lived for many years in the Soviet Union. He was known as the ‘architect of containment’, but he never intended a military containment. He advocated an economic one. This provided a lens to view the Cold War in different lights. History is a record of past triumphs and failures from which we seek guidance in the present. History became my major. It has enthralled me ever since.
Although writing non-fiction wasn’t something contemplated before, I knew I possessed the skills to tell this story. After obtaining my father’s military records, consulting the many books on the conflict in Normandy he purchased over the years, accessing the 22nd Armoured Regiment’s War Diary, finding myself in touch with relatives I hadn’t spoken with in years, I was ready to begin. What emerged was the poignant story of two young people separated by an ocean and a war. All their foibles, their hopes and dreams, their fears, are contained in those ninety-two letters because Guardsman Vern Ploughman was a dedicated letter writer. Although Billie Wenman’s letters were lost when Vern’s tank was shelled on August 10th, 1944, his careful responses to them tell us much about what life was like for Billie back in Toronto. She was so young; she often didn’t comprehend how different their lives were. And Vern was ever kind and tactful – reminding her “There’s a war on, kid”.
Falling in love with their story was easy and brought them both close to me again. Many memories have gained a different cast from having met them before I was ever thought of: my father’s deep concern for my mother when he was dying, my mother’s unstinting care of him. She was only sixty-three when he died, but she never wanted another relationship. All the laughter and silliness between them had its foundation in the earliest moments they knew one another. As their children, we understand them better now. When we were growing up, if one of us got hurt and ran crying to him, our father would give us a little pinch on a different arm or leg and say: “Now all the pain isn’t concentrated in one spot”. Seemed silly and not overly sympathetic. But our father nearly lost one of his feet. Both legs were badly shot up. He spent ten months in hospital before being released on crutches only three months before he married his sweetheart. This leads to wondering now if that was what he told himself in the three months he was hospitalized and alone in England before he was shipped back to Canada. He had the sense of humour for it. It’s that sense of humour I remember the best about him.
Dear Billie: A WWII Love Story has captured two lives during wartime. How many stories have never been told? Will never be told? How much do we miss by not knowing them?
So, history matters. It’s being made in Ukraine right now. While we view the images of war, recognize Vladimir Zelensky as a modern-day hero, let us not forget those whose stories we will never know. If only we could tell them all.