SPRING HILL — On Feb. 14, 1943, 18-year-old Jim Debes got out a pencil and his well-worn tablet to write a letter to his sweetheart.
This was no ordinary day. It was Valentine's Day, and he was stuck inside a tent in the humid jungle near Saidor, New Guinea, where the Pacific Theater of World War II was raging. The young medical corpsman with the Army's 23rd Field Hospital could hear the thunder of Japanese bombs being dropped close by and wondered whether he would survive the war.
In spite of the danger, Debes focused his thoughts on his hometown of Brooklyn, N.Y., and his love for Myrtle Reirsen, the woman he planned to marry someday.
He drew a heart and scratched their initials inside of it. Then he began to write:
Amid the roar of cannon, their piercing wail and final thunder.
Through the nights so full of fear and speculating wonder.
My thoughts are not of shot and shell, and burst of flak against the blue.
My thoughts return as always to freedom, home and you.
Until the battle's roar has ceased, until the light of peace will shine.
Until then and always, you will be my Valentine.
Before sending the note along, Debes asked his fiancee to overlook its sappy sentiment, writing on the back that "I am neither a poet nor artist."
Sixty-nine years later, the 89-year-old Spring Hill resident finds it hard to believe his companion of 69 years saved the six-line poem for so long.
"I really didn't think it was that good," he said last week from his home in Timber Pines. "But Myrt was just sweet like that. I guess she just wanted to keep it to remind me that this is what love is."
After Myrtle Debes died from a heart attack two years ago at age 84, their son Mark discovered the poem inside a candy box his father had given Myrtle on their first date. He presented it to his dad in the hope that it might spark him to assemble and arrange all of his wartime memorabilia into a permanent scrapbook.
Debes fondly recalls the day he met Myrtle. She was 15, and he was immediately captured by her blond hair, silky skin and beaming smile, which he had first seen on a placard outside a photography studio. It didn't take long for the couple to fall in love. But signing up for military duty made him worry of the possibility of leaving a widow.
The couple's marriage was postponed until after he returned.
"It was very hard on me," Debes recalled. "I was in love and I had a job to do, and I knew I was going to be very far away from home for a long time."
Debes' medical unit spent three years in one of most hazardous combat zones in the Pacific. Enemy bombing raids came mostly at night and brought with them tremendous casualties.
Debes took his mind off the chaos by writing letters to Myrtle.
"I thought if I ever got back, I would never let her go," he said.
Debes did find his way back to Brooklyn and Myrtle, on March 1, 1946. He went to work for Bayer USA as a technical representative for its dye manufacturing division. Myrtle, who spent part of the war as a clerical typist with the Royal Norwegian Air Force, went into the business world as well, and worked in the banking industry and in real estate.
After raising two sons, the Debeses decided to retire to Spring Hill in 1987.
For Jim Debes, every Valentine's Day is a reminder of a love he swears could not have been better. The little poem he wrote so long ago came to him during a trying time in his life, which is why he believes anyone who is in love needs to take the time to convey those feelings to the other person.
"When I wrote the poem, I had no way of knowing what the next day might bring," Debes said. "And looking back, I'm so glad I did. She was the love of my life."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.