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Collection of love: Maryland woman reunited with parents' World War II letters

(Jay Korff)

My Dearest Margie

CHEVY CHASE, Md. (WJLA) - At Arlington National Cemetery, rows of marble stand sentry over generations of service. Etched into every headstone is a unique story.

But there are few narratives as wedded to the beauty of devotion as that of John Earl Butler and his wife Margie — who is buried beside her husband of 45 years.

They met by happenstance on New Year’s Eve 1942 in Chicago, falling quickly in love.

But only weeks after meeting, Butler, ace pilot in the Army Air Corps, left for one of the war’s most dangerous assignments.

“My parents were romantic like a lot of people in the 1940s during the war and it was their plan to write a letter every day that they were away. And they numbered them,” said their daughter, Marcy Forrest.

At Marcy Forrest’s home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, her parents' remarkable love story recently took an unexpected turn.

“This is my little office: the smallest room in the house but where all the magic happens because I’m the one who has kept all the photos for the family," Forrest said.

As she likes to say, she is the saver of smiles. Every family has them — cherished moments that bind us to our past and define who we are.

“There is nothing that can be more important to your family than your memories,” Forrest said.

The family’s archivist recently stepped back in time to relive turning points in her lineage thanks to an incalculable coincidence that unfolded on Nancy Adams’ kitchen table nearly 3,000 miles away in Oregon.

Lost and Found in Portland

“God works in mysterious ways,” Nancy Adams said.

In January, Adams found a discarded box of letters near her apartment’s trash bin. She called a reporter at WJLA's sister station, KATU, in Portland.

“It was just sitting on the floor in there. There’s a garbage chute in there. I’m surprised they didn’t just pick it up and throw it down the chute," Adams said.

The former member of the military realized she found a cache of letters written in the 1940s and 1950s by Margie Butler to her husband John Earl Butler.

“You could tell she loved him. There’s tons and tons and tons of letters to him,” Adams said.

Margie Butler’s son lost his mother’s letters during a recent move in Portland.

“He was, of course, heartsick, embarrassed, felt guilty, didn’t even tell us they were lost," Forrest said.

A station staffer at KATU called Marcy after discovering just enough information in these letters to link mother to daughter.

“It was a double surprise. First of all, we didn’t know it was lost but now we know it’s found and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it," Forrest said.

“I’m kind of feeling excited. Find the family. Give this stuff back to them. It makes me bubbly," Adams said.

Coming Home

A week later, the letters were in Marcy Forrest’s living room in Maryland.

“This is the package. It’s arrived from Portland," Forrest said.

What she found inside included some of the missing pieces of her childhood.

As the daughter of a career Air Force officer, she was often uprooted and away from a father who rarely talked about his past, let alone the feelings embedded in these letters.

“It’s just an astounding collection of love,” Forrest said.

Over the next few hours, Forrest pored over a treasure trove of memories.

“May they be long or short, dull or bright, I’ll try my hardest to get a letter out to you every day,” Forrest read from one of the first letters.

For 12 long years, during wars and conflicts from Europe to Southeast Asia, the couple penned some 400 letters and they numbered every one.

Forrest points to a letter and said, “At the top here it says number 57.”

The Burma Hump

During World War II, John Earl Butler flew the infamous Burma Hump.

“In case of a crash landing his map was on silk,” said Forrest, while opening up her father’s silk map.

Butler ferried supplies to the Chinese over the Eastern Himalayas where we lost hundreds of planes and nearly 1,700 lives. For his valor, Butler was twice awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

“You take off in India and you are so hot it is unbearable, you can barely breathe and as soon as you get up there your teeth are chattering, your whole body is shaking, it’s so freezing cold," Forrest said.

Butler returned home and started a family that blossomed. But a few years later, the career officer left for another assignment.

Forrest, reading from another letter, said, “November 16, 1948. Dearest Earl. Well, here I am back to the job of writing you while you are far away from me.”

This time he was in the Middle East. He would be gone for months.

“The day goes by pretty fast but when that sun goes down it’s like my heart sinks with it as such a longing for you comes over me. It makes me feel lonesome knowing you won’t be coming home from dinner at this time, for a long time," Forrest said, reading a letter.

Reuniting the Letters

While Marcy’s younger brother was responsible for their mother’s letters, Marcy safeguarded her father’s correspondence. She kept his letters in a dark corner of the smallest room in the house.

“So this is all the memorabilia I have of my dad’s career: their marriage, their love letters, everything. It is a treasure," Forrest said while picking up the box.

Some of his correspondence, understanding, focused on the realities of war.

Forrest, reading from a letter from her father, said, “Now we hear firing, almost constantly, day and night here.”

Despite years of travail on the front lines of history, the normally quiet man never tired of expressing his love.

“I guess I will never get used to going to bed without you in my arms. My darling I miss you so. Bye for now. All my love, Earl,” read Forrest from passages in a letter from her father to her mother.

On this night, 75 years after her parents started corresponding, Marcy Forrest matched up her father’s letters with her mother’s letters. And by doing so found her family’s genesis.

“She told me that he had proposed to her in a letter,” Forrest said.

Bound in these letters, spanning wars, oceans and generations marked the moment her mother and father agreed to share their affection far beyond the written word.

Forrest, reading from a letter from her mother, said, “I care for you more than anyone else I know and miss you terribly since you are gone. I think we are getting there.”

She couldn’t find the original proposal from her father. But she did uncover her mother’s answer.

Forrest, reading more from the letter, said, “And no matter which way I look at it I know I would be very happy being married to you.”

Forrest then exclaimed in her own words, “This is it. This is what I was hoping to find! Well, there you have it. That’s what began this whole family.”

She also determined only three months separated her parents' first date from their engagement, in a romance that lasted a lifetime.

“I just feel complete. It’s nice to have the whole story here,” Forrest said.

Letter #292

Marcy Forrest wanted to share one last passage from a letter that isn’t here.

She read from a photocopy of a letter penned by her father to her mother.

“Yes, another week finally crawled by to make a total of forty-seven since I last held the most wonderful woman in the world in my arms. Forty-seven weeks during which only in my dreams have I known perfect happiness and my days a nightmare of loneliness and longing to be with you," read Forrest.

It’s letter 292, Marcy’s most cherished, written during the height of the second World War.

“This letter is with my mother at Arlington. I put it in her hands before they closed the casket,” Forrest said quietly.

Arlington National Cemetery

So we return to section 69 at Arlington National Cemetery to witness a love timeless and true.

John Earl Butler died in 1988 at the age of 70. After his wife passed away in 2010, their children decided to memorialize their parent’s enduring commitment.

Etched on her headstone — “My Dearest Margie” — the words that began so many of Butler’s letters to his beloved.

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