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Bonds Of Love And War

Lela & Joe

A True love Story

By Terry D. Janes With Lela M. Bush-Eitel

 

 

 

On February 18, 2003 I got an unusual email.  The writer was a 74 year-old woman from Kansas.  She had been in love with a young man from the 702nd Tank Battalion.  He was killed in the war, and she didn't know much of what had happened to him.  She had searched for information about the 702nd, and specifically about her fiancé to no avail.  This day, February 18th, was the 58th Anniversary of his death.  She had cancer, and had to face her own mortality soon.  The thought of her fiancé being forgotten after she was gone was abhorrent to her.  Even though he had been dead for 58 long years, his memory was still as fresh in her mind as it was then.  She still loved him deeply too.  A true love that would never die.  The lady's name was Lela, and her long-lost love was Joe.

 

Lela and I corresponded back and forth by email.  We soon became friends.  The depth of her love for this soldier who died so long ago profoundly impressed me.  In the course of helping Lela find out what her Joe had gone through, I found many answers of my own.  As we discovered things about Joe, we also learned much more about the Red Devils and the 80th than I had ever known before.  In fact, I would humbly say that before starting my research with Lela, I was fairly ignorant of events in the war for the 702nd Tank Battalion and 80th Division.  Because of what I learned working with Lela, I was not only able to help her and answer her long-unanswered questions, but in the process, was able to help others, and make the whole history project more detailed and make sense of many otherwise confusing things.  So, not only do I owe my dear old friend much, we all owe Lela a great debt.
 
Lela was a fifteen year-old girl from Wichita, Kansas in 1944.  She came from an average family, and was an average girl for the times she lived in.  Lela was a pretty girl, with a strong religious belief.  Joe Delaurentis was a normal kid from Philadelphia, also from a normal, average family of Italian ancestry.  Joe was a talented musician, who played the trumpet and saxophone.  Many of his musician friends would tell you that he was a natural genius with his sax.  Joe was drafted into the army, and was assigned to the 702nd Tank Battalion "Red Devils", Company A.  Joe trained at Camp Campbell, Kentucky to become a tank driver.  A tank driver was more than just a driver.  He was also the person who was responsible for the maintenance of the tank, and whose job it was to keep that tank going and doing its job.  Joe liked his job, and did it well.  Later, when he was offered a promotion to tank commander, which came with a higher rank and more money, he turned it down.  Joe didn't mind being responsible for a tank, but didn't want to be responsible for other men's lives.  If one of his men were killed because of his leadership; that would be too much for Joe to take, so he stayed in his driver job.
 
In 1944, Joe's tank battalion was transferred from Camp Campbell to Camp Phillips, Kansas for training with infantry troops, so they could learn how best to work together, and both branches of the service could be better prepared for what awaited them.  On weekends, when soldiers at Camp Phillips could get leave, they'd head for Wichita, Kansas for some good times.  On one such occasion, Joe Delaurentis went to a dance, and there met a local girl, named Lela.  Joe fell immediately in love with this beautiful girl.  He didn't know how young she was yet, but he knew in his heart that she was the one for him.  In the short time they were able to see each other, their affection was limited to a few chaste kisses, and holding hands, which were plenty of thrills for both of them.  Joe's unit soon shipped off to England, and then landed in France on Aug. 6, 1944.  Joe experienced real battle first at Argentan.  His platoon leader, Lt. Stevens was wounded there, and died of his wounds.  Six decades later, after nearly giving up trying to locate Lt. Stevens grave, Lela and I were contacted out of the blue one day, by a man who'd found the grave of Lt. Stevens in a long-neglected private cemetery in Baltimore, buried alongside his mother, in an area covered in knee-high weeds.  It was obvious that no one had visited the grave in a very long time.  In the attack at Argentan where Lt. Stevens was wounded, S/Sgt. Marx Larkin had to take over, and complete the mission.  Larkin was Joe's tank commander, and a man that all the A Company men respected and loved.  Larkin too would later be killed in the war.
 

The sequence of events, of Lela and I searching for something, like Lt. Stevens grave, and then reaching a dead end, giving up, and then having the answers we sought just fall into our laps, were what Lela and I began calling our "Twilight Zone" moments.  And there were many such moments for Lela and I.  Things would happen that were very spooky, in a good way, and step-by-step, we'd find all the answers to the questions we had.  It was like an unseen force from above was guiding us.  Whether it was God, Joe's spirit, or what, we didn't know, but I am here to say that many things came to light that were not just the result of the skilled work of Lela and I.  In time, Lela and I decided to write a book.  As work progressed on the book, Lela's health got worse.  A difference in how we saw the finished book also became apparent.  To Lela, this was simply the world's greatest love story.  To me, it was more than just a love story.  It was indeed a spectacular love story, but it also played a great role in history, and touched on the lives of so many others as well.  As I write this, Lela has been gone to her maker four years now.  After her death, I wanted to release this story to the public not only in tribute to my dear friend, but also to help others gain some perspective of how the lives of these two young innocent kids had interacted with so many others, and in the end, nearly seven decades after, their love was still as strong and pure as ever.  Lela's second husband asked that I delay the release of this story for a while.  He knew all about Lela's love for her long-lost Joe, but he needed time to grieve the loss of his wife, and I understood that.  Last December, Lela's husband passed away.  The time has come for the story of Lela and Joe to be told.  I owe my sweet old friend that.  This is what she wanted; for people to know that true love endures, and that God is with us always.

 

Lela Mae Bush (Left) With Her Girlfriends

 

Joe DeLaurentis In Philadelphia Before The War

 

 

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