Spending a lifetime together through war, children and Spokane | News
In a tiny north Spokane living room, a married couple looks back on their 71 years of marriage through pages of newspaper clippings and photographs. Their romance started young in Priest River. Willard “Peewee” Little stole a kiss from his future wife, Betty, at the age of 12 under a lit lamp post. She was scared of the way home and he was there for her.
They didn’t start dating until high school. In August of 1941, they started their life together with vows of marriage and soon a baby would be on the way. In 1944, Willard went to war.
Separated by thousands of miles, Willard served the Navy’s Seabees for 18 months in Guam. From 1944 to ‘46, he built huts and survived the speeding bullets of Japanese snipers. Even at a distance, loving correspondences were shared, a letter a day confirming their romance. Betty says she still keeps the letters downstairs in a chest. She hasn’t read them in years, but they’re still there.
“They were censored in those days. You couldn’t write anything about the war or where he was at. Just had to write that you were lonesome and you missed them. That’s what we did,” Betty said.
Betty shared their story while Willard sat close by. He was recently released from the hospital after suffering from severe dehydration and has entered the care of Hospice. He sat nearby quietly taking in the energy from friends and family gathered to hear what the couple had to say about their lives together. In that same living room, two boys grew up in the afterglow of the war.
The oldest, Tom Little, now 69-years-old, served in Vietnam from 1964-’66 with the Army. His mother still keeps a newspaper clipping in her wallet of his military honors, a Army Commendation Medal. It’s been laminated to preserve the tiny piece of paper, but it’s still faded like the hundreds of photographs tucked away in their scrapbook.
Pasted into a floral covered book, a Japanese flag, photographs of Willard’s war buddies and even a newspaper clippings of “Tokyo Rose”. Willard wasn’t a photographer, but over the years friends provided him with the memories. The scrapbook is decades old and has seen its share of tiny hands flipping through it.
“We’d always look at the pictures,” the youngest son, Mike, now 65-years-old, said.
He remembers the weekends. That’s when him and his brother would open the scrapbook and watch war movies with their father.
“It was always Run Silent and Run Deep or any war movie that they would show,” Mike said. “We were living the history after it happened. It was the talk and it was still in the news.”
Mike wasn’t born until after the war. When word finally reached the Inland Northwest that everything was over, the streets were flooded with people celebrating. Betty will never forget the end of the war.
“My dad was here in Spokane that day. He went home to Priest River,” she paused. “He was killed that day. He was working on his car. I’ll always remember that because he was so happy the war was over.”
It wasn’t until the following April when Willard finally came home to Betty.
“On April 1 I received a telegram from him in San Diego. I thought it was a joke. I couldn’t believe it,” Betty said. “A couple days later, he was in Spokane. Everything was by train those days. I met him there. He was so thin I couldn't believe it. He weighed 100 lbs. He probably weighs that now.”
The similar weight would not be a surprise. Willard recently spent about a week in the hospital for severe dehydration. Doctors had to keep him hooked up to fluids to keep him healthy, but luckily he’s a tough guy. He always has been. Even during the war, he’d pose next to heavy artillery with his sleeves rolled up. Built muscles were layered on top of his arms and on his left forearm, a tattoo.
For a short moment, Willard discussed the past. Behind his eyes, memories of all those years ago. Willard says he and his friend compulsively decided to get tattoos while stationed in Guam.
“It’s kind of faded out,” Willard said slowly. “We looked at them. I came up with this. He was from Salt Lake City. I haven’t seen him since.”
It’s hard to pick out the tattoo from his darkened veins. Barely visible, a heart with an arrow through the words: “Betty”.
Betty says she didn’t know about the tattoo until he came home. No letter explained his decision.
“I was a little unhappy. I didn’t think it was a nice thing to put on your arm, but I’m proud of it,” she said.
Over seven decades of marriage is no easy task. Willard offered few secrets to the success of their marriage, leaving it up to the remainder of the world to figure it out for themselves. The sons, however, offered some insight to the state of their marriage.
“Looking at the world today, I’m surprised because you don’t see that every day,” Mike said. “I’m always inspired by their relationship and when they made a decision, they made it together. There was no bickering or arguing about it on weeks at a time.”
Betty and Willard are the envy of their neighborhood. For those that have known them for the 62 years they’ve lived in their home, they describe the two as “good people”.
One neighbor, Bob Heatwole, 71, has gone the extra mile to tell their story. He’s collected hundreds of signatures and dozens of letters from the community to not only say thank you for Willard’s military service, but congratulations are their upcoming anniversary.
“I did it for Peewee and Betty. I’ve known them for 27 years. Great people, great family. They deserve it,” Heatwole said as he choked back emotion.
Their acquaintance was never personal, but every time they saw each other, Heatwole would say hi and the Littles would wave on their way to the store. His effort to collect good will has gained traction from over a hundred local businesses. That’s not all, numerous public officials have shared their messages including Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, city of Spokane Mayor David Condon, Spokane Police’s interim chief Scott Stephens and Governor Christine Gregoire. This is Heatwole’s gift to the Little’s.
“Maybe it is. They’re good people. You want to help good people. If it makes them happy, it makes you happy,” he added.
Willard’s health is in decline and his family is doing what they can to make him comfortable with the help of Hospice. For now, Betty and Willard enjoy the closeness of each other and life. Their lives are history for some, but for the Little family, it was real.
“This is history. This is life the way it is,” Mike described growing up. “Looking back on it now, it’s momentous, huge.”
Willard doesn’t think back to Guam too often. His family says it’s “too emotional.” When he does - silent tears. The memories too are silent.
“Some of it,” Willard paused. “I can’t hardly see.”