Friday, May 25, 2012

God Bless Them All -- A Story from the Greatest Generation

She arrived on her 21st birthday, a Belgian war bride who had fallen in love with Staff Sgt. Versie Adams during the height of the German occupation of Europe.

Multi-lingual and educated in the classics, Janine Dardenne of Boirs, Belgium, was an only child born unto a family of hat makers, who spent summers in Paris sewing the latest in fashion -- before the War broke out and changed the course of oh so many lives.

At 15, she spoke Flemish, Dutch and French and was learning English when Hitler decided the "Funny War" was over and marched roughshod over the low country of Belgium to take a poorly prepared and bumbling France by storm.  

Janine quickly learned to cope with life in a country occupied by hostile forces, to survive air raids on the surrounding countryside, and to help the Allies in whatever way she could.

Able to speak English better than most in her tiny village, Janine participated in what was a perilous effort, punishable by death if caught by the Nazis, to spirit an injured American air corpsman back to the safety of England.

The underground's decision to help S/Sgt Joseph J. Walters, ball turret gunner who had parachuted from the crippled B-17, “Chugalug Lulu,” and landed broken and bruised in an apple tree in Boirs, is a celebrated WWII story on both sides of the Atlantic.

Thanks to a snapshot taken of the frightened Pittsburgh native by a local resident, the rescue has been memorialized at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum in Savannah, GA, and online on numerous websites, including at least one in French.
As the war wore on and her formal schooling ended, fate would have it that Janine would meet Brookhaven's own Versie Brooks Adams at the ordinance depot in Liege, where he was the staff sergeant in charge of the parts room and she was working as a typist, switchboard operator and interpreter.

It was NOT love at first sight: he thought her sarcastic, she thought him arrogant. 

But love did bloom and on Dec. 22, 1945, they were married in both civil and religious ceremonies in Europe. She walked down the aisle to the strains of "Here Comes the Bride," played by a German Prisoner of War.

Five short months later, she, along with some 300 other war brides, was crammed -- 9 to a cabin -- onto a steam ship to New York. 

After a itinerary mix-up that took her overland to Lexington, arriving on the chaotic day of the Kentucky Derby, she eventually found her way to Memphis -- several months ahead of her husband's stateside return.  There, Versie's two brothers were summoned via telephone, and they appeared in short order to bring their brother's young war bride home.

It was in the dark of night on May 5, 1946 -- her 21st birthday -- that she first saw the small Southern town that would become her new village.

Within two weeks of arriving, she had landed a job at the Southern Bell telephone company, first working as a "number please" telephone operator for 9 years, and next acting as a service representative for the ensuing 25. 

She quickly acclimated to the cadence of Southern accents, although she laughingly told a story about writing on her ticket a long distance call to Pensacola as a request to speak to Pepsi Cola. 

With a keen sense of humor, she adapted well, learning to love Southern food as much as Versie loved her mother's Belgian fried potatoes when they were first courting. 

Her parents, finding themselves alone in Europe, soon sold everything they owned and joined their daughter and son-in-law in Brookhaven in 1948.  Her father, who had already suffered two strokes in Europe, died of a third in 1951, at age 54.  Her mother lived on, taking a job she loved in the alterations department in Benoits, and passed away at age 80 in 1978.
The above summary only hits the high spots of Janine Dardenne Adams' recollections of her life in Europe and her new life in the Deep South, as recorded in an Oral History interview at the Lincoln, Lawrence, Franklin Library.

She was interviewed as a widow, by Dr. Russell Burns on March 16, 1999, just two weeks shy of the third anniversary of Versie Adams' death.  The transcript is on file at the library under Oral Histories, which see.

I found her story to be one of the more riveting reads on file.
As we honor our armed forces this Memorial Day Weekend, I would urge you to take time to read the full interview to get a truer sense of a World at War and to comprehend one person's view of what the Greatest Generation did to save the World from Evil. 
Her closing words of the interview will encompass my thoughts for this holiday weekend: 

When asked by Dr. Burns if she had anything more to add, she said:

"Just one thing: I am forever grateful to the American GI's. So resourceful, so competent. They were given an impossible task and they did it with good ole American know-how.

“A bunch of ordinary guys, amateurs, really, who together managed to defeat the strongest War Machine the world had ever known.

"I say a prayer each night for those who died and for those who live. God bless them all."

The Southern Belles -- the Centennial Float sponsored by Southern Bell, August 1959.  I do not know if Janine is among the beauties on this float, but one thing is certainly possible: the switchboard is likely something she operated back in the day. Photo from the John Holly Williams Collection.

 Note the birthdate.  Pearl Harbor occurred on his 20th birthday. Photo courtesy of Find-A-Grave.



  1. This man drove my school bus for many years. To my shame I never knew what a hero he was. Thanks for sharing this incredible story, Molly.

  2. Bill Perkins is visiting us this Memorial Day Weekend. I do believe there was more than Versie Adams in the area. This Versie Adams owned L&A Auto Parts, which was located on Railroad Avenue. Bill reports Janine's nickname, known to everyone in town, is Sweet Pea.