Love and War in La Jolla: Mount Soledad tours tell tales of military courtship
By Pat Sherman
When people think of military marriages, the most common image that comes to mind is of an enlisted man or woman passionately embracing his or her spouse upon their safe return from deployment.
But as long as men and women have served in the armed forces, passion has just as often simmered between enlisted personnel — the couples frequently putting careers and reputations in peril to be together.
In honor of Valentine’s Day, the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial Association is offering tours of plaques depicting such military marriages, along with the stories of how each couple navigated their oft-clandestine courtships.
Docents will lead tours by appointment through the end of the month, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays — or at other times by prior arrangement.
The tour includes the stories of seven military marriages, though about 100 of the 1,000 memorial plaques atop Mount Soledad are of military couples.
Former District 1 City Councilmember Bill Mitchell said the details of his parents’ military romance were a family secret only revealed to him by his mother when he turned 18 and was leaving to join the Air Force.
Several years ago, Mitchell purchased a plaque honoring his parents, Sgt. Arnold Robert Mitchell Sr. and Lt. Marguerite Marie (Dunn) Mitchell — the only World War I couple represented at the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial.
Mitchell’s father, an Army combat medic who served in six major battles, met his mother, an Army nurse, after being wounded in one of the final battles of the war.
Arnold Mitchell, who is credited with saving the life of Lt. Gen. Clarence Huebner in the Battle of Soissons, was brought to an Army hospital in Little Rock, Ark., where his bride-to-be was stationed.
Mitchell said his mother decided to accept his father’s marriage proposal after perusing his military medical records and discovering that he was one of the few men with a clean bill of health. They married in Little Rock.
“One day my mother showed me that her marriage license was under a fictitious name,” recalled Mitchell, a La Jolla resident and Korean War veteran. “She used another name so that the military wouldn’t find out. I guess they just left it that way.”
Shortly after Mitchell’s parents married, his father was discharged from the service and the couple eventually returned to San Diego, where he took a job operating a streetcar, eventually becoming a fireman and police officer.
Mitchell’s mother took a nursing job at Scripps Memorial Hospital on Prospect Street, later becoming a county health nurse.
Former memorial association employee Erin Feld has grandparents on both sides of her family whose love is enshrined on plaques at the memorial. Her grandparents’ wartime romance stories are also part of this month’s tour. On her father’s side, Carmella and Leo Feld — a Navy nurse and a parachute rigger — met while stationed in Pensacola, Fla., and singing in the local church choir together.
“She was a commissioned officer and he was an enlisted man, so they were not suppose to date,” their granddaughter said, referring to the military’s longstanding fraternization policy.
Feld’s grandfather was soon walking her grandmother home from choir practice, to assure her “safety,” later pretending to be her driver.
“That was the excuse he would use, that he had to driver her places, and they would just sneak off base together for dates,” Feld said, recounting stories her Italian grandmother and German grandfather told her, occasionally accompanied by pictures of them together at some restaurant off base.
After World War II, Leo Feld returned to Pennsylvania, while Carmella remained in Pensacola.
Feld’s mother saved an album of telegrams the couple sent one another, while planning their wedding from afar. “She still had all these ‘I love you’ telegrams,” Feld said. “It was just kind of neat to see how deep their love went.”
After marrying, Leo Feld used his G.I. money to go to school and become a pharmacist, while Carmella kept busy raising the couple’s seven children.
Feld says she knows less about the story of her grandparents on her mother’s side, Mary and Harry Chaykun — he an electrician’s mate and Navy Seabee serving in the South Pacific, she a Naval stenographer and one of the many World War II-era WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service).
Harry Chaykun was stationed in the Solomon Islands near Australia when he came down with a mysterious illness thought to be malaria and was sent to a military office in Mechanicsburg, Penn., where his bride-to-be was secretary for a high-ranking official. The rest, as they say, is history.
Feld, who was raised in Pennsylvania and now resides in La Jolla, said she never found it unusual to have two sets of grandparents in the military — though she said others find it extraordinary. “These were people that wouldn’t have met otherwise, brought together through horrible times, who happened to find each other,” she said. “You don’t get the whole story, but you walk by and learn about their love and time together in the (service).”
The tours also will include plaques dedicated to several U.S. presidents who served in the military. To schedule a tour, call Joanie Brennan at (858) 459-2314, or for more information, visit soledadmemorial.com
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