Mission Moment: WWII wings find their way home
In 1943, America was in the throes of a world war that threatened the foundation of our way our life, our freedom and security. Millions of Americans joined the United States Armed Forces. Women played important roles, both at home and in uniform, serving in the military and in the commercial sector with the aim of freeing a man to fight.
This is a story about a WWII soldier, a real-life Rosey the Riveter and a couple of YMCA staffers who closed a chapter of a book that was written decades before they were born.
During the war, a 17-year-old daughter of Italian immigrants, Rose Marra Scotland, was living in one of Cleveland’s growing suburbs. At a local high school dance in the Collinwood area of Cleveland, she met John Battstone, a 19-year-old soldier who had recently joined the Army Air Corps. John was immediately attracted to Rose and they started dating.
When John was ordered to deploy overseas, he asked Rose to wait for him. To show her his heartfelt commitment, he gave her his Army Air Corps wings and his service pin. Although Rose was deeply touched, she felt she was too young to make a commitment but offered to write to him regularly while he was overseas. John was disappointed but assured Rose he would write her back. Rose agreed to keep his wings safe until he returned.
Both kept their promises. John was sent overseas and faithfully wrote to Rose. She answered all his letters.
During this time, Rose found a job in a factory that had been refitted for the war effort. Her boss taught her how to rivet and she became one of the thousands of “Rosie the Riveters” taking the jobs the men left behind. Before long, she noticed her boss seemed to like her very much.
Then came terrible news. John’s plane had been shot down, and he and his fellow soldiers had been taken prisoner. He became a POW in a German prison camp. He was allowed two postcards a month – one to his family and one he wrote to Rose. There was little he could write because his letters were highly censored but at least his loved ones knew he was still alive.
At the end of the war, John was freed and returned home. He was a changed man. Those who knew him could see his terrible ordeal deeply affected him. In those days, no one knew about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Rose still saw him from time to time, but somehow the spark was gone. They slowly lost touch. She never got the chance to return his wings. John moved away and Rose lost track of him. However, she kept the wings in a safe place in the hopes of someday returning them.
Rose eventually married her boss. They had a beautiful daughter and built a home in the growing suburbs of Cleveland. She often wondered about John and what had become of him. She hoped to one day to return his service wings.
Years later, Rose learned that John had died. He had several children, but she did not know where they lived. Suddenly Rose felt a stab of remorse. She did not know how to locate John’s children, but she held on to the hope that one day she could return the wings to John’s family.
In 2021, Rose’s dream would come true, thanks to her coworkers at the local YMCA. At 96 years old, she is still working as an aquatic fitness instructor at the Hillcrest Family YMCA in Lyndhurst, Ohio. She shared the story of the lost wings with her coworkers. Two staff members decided to take up this cause.
They began a rigorous online search, and with a little luck, they were able to track down John’s children. Better, they learned that, by chance, the oldest son was coming to Cleveland to visit a relative.
The staffers helped arranged for a meeting some 70 years in the making. Rose met Michael Battstone and returned to him his father’s Air Corps wings on October 16. And just like that, decades of hoping came to a joyful close.
There were many shared stories, a great deal of laughter, and some tears. Michael had not heard his father’s war stories, so he was thrilled Rose was able to paint for him a vivid picture of the former POW. Michael’s daughter, who accompanied him, also learned about the grandfather she had never known. And Michael was able to tell Rose about his father’s last days and assure her that John’s love for her had sustained him through the war.
Rose’s dream had come true, made possible because two young Y staff members cared enough to get involved. That is the culture of the YMCA. Rose can now rest easy. After 78 years, John’s wings are finally home where they belong. (Y member Donna Zaller contributed to this article.)