WWII Vets, Married for 70 Years, Share their Story

 

“Our marriage is not work … she is my greatest achievement,” says Al Sankowich. He and his wife Ann met in the military during World War II, and wed more than 70 years ago. Photo by Tim Robison.

“Our marriage is not work … she is my greatest achievement,” says Al Sankowich. He and his wife Ann met in the military during World War II, and wed more than 70 years ago. Photo by Tim Robison.

A decorated airman, just discharged after serving three years in, arrived on Long Island intent on completing a surprise mission.

Time, though, was short. He needed to use public transit to get through New York City to Newark, New Jersey, and see his fiancée before her nursing shift with disabled veterans began. If he timed it right, he’d meet her on the platform at the train station.

A radio operator with the Air Force, he boarded the subway for free — in those days, military members didn’t pay for public transit — switched trains, and made his way to the spot where she was supposed to be.

They found each other and sat together on the next train.

“Honey, the most romantic part. You’re missing it,” says 93-year-old Ann Sankowich. She’s sitting close to her husband, Al, in their Hendersonville townhouse, and she pats him on the left arm as she reminds him to tell her favorite part.

It was a look, Al reminisces. As in movies: a look across the platform where their eyes met. A look so strong that after years apart, Al couldn’t stand it anymore. “Let’s get married now. Right now,” he told her as they sat on the train to Trenton together.

One week later, on April 28, 1945, dressed in their military uniforms, the two wed in a small ceremony at the chapel at New Jersey’s Fort Dix.

Al, now 96, has told the story many times in 70 years of marriage, and it’s just one page in their love story. “My greatest achievement,” Al says, and you don’t know if he means snagging Ann (their courtship actually began with another look, across a factory floor, years before he left for the war) or spending his whole life with her. Or both.

Ann was never sure where Al was when he served overseas. Her 12-hour night shifts as a nursing student kept her busy, but she often thought of him, and her co-workers knew of her engagement. “The nurses would tell me on my time off to go write a letter,” she recalls. So she’d find an empty room and pen another note. When the mail arrived in Burma, where Al was stationed, he’d receive three or four letters at once.

He wrote back, often during a flight with his combat cargo squadron. Their job was to drop parts, supplies, or troops in the mountains or jungles. (He flew 976 combat hours and earned the Air Medal five times, the Distinguished Flying Cross four times, and two battle stars.)

A decorated airman and a nurse, they wed in their military uniforms.

A decorated airman and a nurse, they wed in their military uniforms.

Those nearly daily letters, more pages of their love story, were thrown away years ago. But not the snapshots. Black-and-white framed pictures cover their walls and sit on small tables in their home. A group of photos, included shots of two grandsons in military uniforms, surround a box of Al’s awards and ribbons.

After they married, Al got a job with Ford Motor Company as a tool engineer and Ann stayed home to tend their three sons and two daughters. “Tarzan wanted Jane to stay home and raise the family,” she says with a laugh.

The two first-generation Americans (Ann’s parents immigrated from Poland and Al’s parents were from the country next door, Belarus) brought up their children to appreciate patriotism in a small New Jersey town called Waldwick.

After 28 years with Ford, Al retired in 1981. Seven years later they looked to relocate. Two weeks in North Carolina, spent touring different towns, ended with a visit to Hendersonville.

It happened to be April, their wedding month. Spring flowers were in bloom. “I fell in love with the town walking down Main Street,” Ann says. “It rang a bell.” (They bought a house on Carousel Street and downsized to their current townhouse eight years ago.)

People frequently comment on the unusual length of their marriage. But never has it occurred to the Sankowiches that this is a remarkable topic. Being in love came easy to them.

“To me, the marriage was no work. We do things together very well,” Al says. “It’s been great.”

The old station wagon that’s parked outside their home — still driven, still adorned with a faded Distinguished Flying Cross Society decal — once towed a fishing boat. Two or three times a week, the couple used to cast their lines in local lakes. Photos of their most significant triumphs are still showcased in a back bedroom.

Ann says that Al’s patience is why she became a good fisher-person — one who went from snagging her line in trees to reeling in the biggest catch.

These days, they might be a little less active than before, but they still spend the bulk of their days together, saying “I love you” as often as possible.

And it’s not a casual thing. “When you say ‘I love you,’ mean it,” Ann advises. “[Just] ‘love you’ isn’t enough. Loyalty and trust are important. It all falls into place after that.”

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