Jan 23, 2011 ‘I love you with all my heart’
Their love story began when they both attended St. Joseph School in Conway.
“I was born and raised in Conway,” said Al, whose family owned and operated Hiegel Lumber Co. “When I ran Hiegel Lumber, I knew nearly everybody in Faulkner County.”
“Now, we don’t know nearly anybody,” Mary smiled.
Mary lived in Little Rock the first 10 years of her life before her family moved to Conway. Her dad, originally from Center Ridge, bought a café in Downtown Conway (located where Fletcher Smith’s Jewelers is today). “There were 5,000 people in Conway when I moved here in 1938,” she said. “I consider myself a ‘native’ of Conway because I’ve been here so long.”
Mary enrolled in the sixth grade at St. Joseph and Al was in the seventh grade. “When I moved to Conway, there were very few families. Everybody knew who I was but I didn’t know anyone.”
The couple’s courtship began in high school and they dated for several years. “She was a knockout. Everybody knew her. I don’t know how I ended up with her. She had so many choices.”
Mary recalled that date night was usually a movie at one of the two Conway theaters. The Grand on Oak Street showed cowboy and B movies. The Conway Theater on Front Street was nicer, according to Mary, and had more current movies. Al noted there were no fast food restaurants back then. “We didn’t eat out like they do today,” Mary added.
When Al and Mary were in school, a lot of families had cotton farms and oftentimes the children were needed to help with the crop. Many would drop out in the eighth grade to help. That need was more prevalent as young men left for military service so girls had to help more.
“By the time I was in the 12th grade, there was one boy left in my class and nine girls,” Mary said. “In the eighth grade, we had about 30 students.”
Al graduated in 1944 with four girls and four boys in his senior class.
Obviously in love, the two had to wait until they were old enough to get married.
Understanding the likelihood that he would probably be drafted to serve in the military after he graduated high school, Al decided to enlist in the Navy when he was 17. “We knew he was going sooner or later,” Mary said.
After graduating high school, Al left for boot camp the following September. He turned 18 on the way to San Diego. “When he went off to war, he asked me to wait on him,” Mary said. “I knew he was the one.”
Reporting for duty
Al describes boot camp as “tough” but educational. “You learned how to work together,” he said. “Like with the oars on a boat, everybody pulls at the same time.” Al attended radar school at Point Loma, Calif. On Feb. 14, he boarded a troop ship, the USS Gen. Harry Taylor, for a trip to Pearl Harbor and overseas duty. He arrived Feb. 27.
Servicemen were required to stay on base for a week before they were eligible for leave. “When my week was up, I was decked out in dress whites and ready to take on the town. As I was ready to board the Navy bus, I was told to go to a certain building and see the officer there,” Al said. “He wanted to know what type of ship I would like to serve on, and I told him an aircraft carrier.” Al explained to the officer that he always loved airplanes and lived two blocks from the airport in his hometown.
“Math and science were my favorite subjects in high school and of all the Navy ships available, an aircraft carrier seemed to ‘fit’ me best. The movement of the sailors on the flight deck during flight operations is choreography in itself.”
The officer responded, “Tell you what, there is an aircraft carrier, the USS Independence in port right now needing a radar operator. It is leaving tomorrow. I will assign you to that carrier. Go to your barracks, gather up your belongings and go aboard right now.”
“I said, ‘Yes sir,’ and after a quick salute, I was on my way. I was thrilled to do that even if it did mean no weekend in Honolulu.”
Al recalled that the ship left port the next day and “headed full speed to war. Admiral Halsey was waiting for us and many more ships at Ulithi so the Battle of Okinawa could begin.”
‘All my love forever’
While away, Mary and Al began writing to one another. While aboard ship, Al wrote to Mary nearly every day. “Sometimes I wouldn’t hear from him for weeks and then one day I’d get a dozen letters.” Sometimes, Mary would get her letters from Al in the morning while she worked at her dad’s café before walking to school.
“I saved every letter he wrote.” There are more than 200 letters, stored in a shoebox for safekeeping.
During the war, letters written by servicemen were censored to ensure they did not contain information that could be used by the enemy if intercepted. “He learned you can’t write that kind of stuff,” she said.
One of Al’s letters has a hole where the name of his troop ship was removed, although the piece found its way into the fold in the letter. Mary recalls that one man who censored Al’s letters was from Vilonia and after the war, they met him at a Boy Scout event.
Al would sometimes sign his letters “I love you with all my heart” in French, using some of the foreign language he learned in school. “That’s the only French I know,” Al admits.
While away, Mary was concerned for Al’s safety. “He was in some battles and they had some people to get killed on the ship.”
Al recalls that he wasn’t scared while serving during the war but there were a couple of occasions where he felt “apprehensive.”
While he did not personally know anyone aboard ship who was killed, he remembers there were times that some pilots didn’t return from missions. He also knew classmates from St. Joseph who were killed in the war.
The war ended in 1945 and Al was discharged in June 1946. He was gone about 19 months.
Mary was 18 and Al was 20 when they married in a ceremony at St. Joseph Catholic Church in June 16, 1947. Her mother made her wedding dress and the dresses for her two bridesmaids. Al and Mary honeymooned in New Orleans.
Al worked at Hiegel Lumber in Downtown Conway until his retirement.
“It was the only job I ever had except working for Uncle Sam,” he said.
The couple have three children – Mary Ann Tipton, Philip and Jerry – and 14 grandchildren. With much pride, Al will tell you he has 10 great-grandchildren and two “in the hangar” (or on the way).
Al enjoyed his time in the military and has shared his experiences with others, including local schoolchildren.
He has also remained active in reunion groups, serving as historian. (For more information, please visit www.ussindependence-CVL22.com.)
The Hiegels have nearly 500 boxes of slides that chronicle their family – from parades and weddings to holidays and vacations.
Al and Mary have traveled all 50 states and six of the seven continents (all of them except Africa). To celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, they visited the Holy Land.
“We’ve been from one end of the world to the other,” said Al.
Al and Mary have read through the love letters two or three times. Al has detailed his service in the military in a book, which he wrote primarily for his grandchildren. He’s also put together a history book on Hiegel Lumber.
Looking back on their lives, the love the two have shared has remained strong.
“We have a good time. Like my mom said, we go together like ham and eggs,” Mary said. “We’ve had a good life.”
“We’ve really been blessed,” said Al.