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Couple Recall Navy Careers, 55 Years of Married Bliss

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

GULFPORT, Miss., June 22, 2000 – Jules H. "Skeets" Powers and Marian Ditzler were making their mothers leather purses in the hobby shop at Naval Air Auxiliary Station Kingsville, Texas, when Marian's boyfriend announced he was getting out of the Navy early.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Marian and Jules H. "Skeets" Powers, both 77, pose in the hallway outside their room at the Naval Home in Gulfport, Miss. Marian is the artist of the paintings on the wall. Skeets holds a picture of them as newlyweds in 1946, when they were both Navy chief petty officers. The award Marian wears on her dress is her civilian career award, the first ever presented at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. Photo by Rudi Williams.
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

"Skeets," the boyfriend said, "I'm going to Illinois and I want you to take care of Marian. I'll keep in touch." Marian was scheduled to have a tonsillectomy. One day after being released, she was back in the sickbay with the mumps. Skeets visited her often.

When she was released on Jan. 5, 1946, they started dating, and about a week later, they realized there was something special about their relationship. They were married on Feb. 21, 1946, becoming the first two chiefs on active duty in the Navy to be married.

"Well, that was almost 55 years ago and we never heard from Al," Skeets said, as Marian broke out in laughter.

Now, Marian and "Skeets," both 77, are one of 13 married couples living at the Naval Home here. Marian's eligible to live in the retirement home based on her active duty service prior to 1948.

"The prerequisite for all the women here is that they have to be eligible for the home in their own right," she said. "They can't come in on their husband's coat tail. That's why there are not a lot more married couples here."

Skeets was born on Nov. 24, 1922, in Charleston, S.C., to a salesman and radio station manager father and housewife mother. His parents divorced. He started delivering newspapers at 14 to help out the family, then joined the Navy on April 3, 1941. "My family was getting on the rocks economically," he said. "I went into the Navy to make my own way and not be an expense to Mom."

Marian joined the Navy about 15 months later. "When they organized the WAVES -- Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service -- on July 30, 1942, I immediately thought that was for me," she said. She served on active duty until June 12, 1946, when the Navy forced her out because she became pregnant.

The Powerses have a son and daughter. Their son Rick and his wife, Susan, own a computer consulting business in Franktown, Colo. Daughter Betty is a legal secretary in Valrico, Fla., near Tampa, where she lives with her husband, Michael Anderson, a certified public accountant. They have a daughter and two sons, one of whom, Chris, is a petty officer second class aboard the destroyer USS John Hancock.

Skeets said the Navy tapped him for aviation mechanic school because of his high scores on the mechanics part of the entrance examination. From school in Jacksonville, Fla., he went to the Transitional Training Squadron in Norfolk, Va., for training as a flight engineer and plane captain for the Martin PBM-3 seaplane.

He wanted to get into the thick of things during World War II, but that's not what the Navy had in mind.

"My job during the war was mainly as a crew chief and flight engineer. The PBM-3 was a twin-engine propeller-driven patrol bomber and surveillance aircraft," said Skeets. He advanced in rank rapidly, making chief petty officer in less than four years.

From November 1941 to April 1942, he was a member of a seaplane flight crew at Naval Air Station Banana River, Cocoa, Fla. He was then assigned as an aircraft engine maintenance and flight crewman at Naval Air Station San Juan, Puerto Rico, for the rest of the war.

He completed instructor training in February 1949 and served at the Naval Aviation Technical Training Center in Millington, Tenn. During the Korean War, Skeets was in San Diego working in the education office, helping sailors qualify for promotions and advising them about GI insurance.

Marian was born in rural Jackson County, Ill., on Nov. 3, 1922. When she was about 4, her parents moved to Sparta, Ill. She was working in a dress factory when the Navy started recruiting for the WAVES.

"I didn't want to sit in a factory and sew for the rest of my life," she noted. She enlisted in the Navy on Nov. 27, 1942, about three weeks after her 20th birthday, and was in the second boot camp class to train at Cedar Falls, Iowa. After that, she noted, women went to Hunter College in New York City.

The Navy sent her to parachute rigging school in Lakehurst, N.J. "I guess they figured that with my sewing experience, I'd be good at repairing parachutes and as a parachute rigger," she said with a hearty laugh. "I was featured in the July 1943 issue of Harper's Bazaar magazine as one of the woman parachute riggers doing their duty for the war effort."

Her first assignment was overhauling and repairing parachutes at the Naval Air Station Alameda, Calif. Before long, she was assigned to the inspection department. "The barracks were contained within a six-foot chain link fence with armed sailors posted at the gates," Marian recalled. "All dates said goodnight at this point."

She earned extra money working in the canteen during the day and as a waitress at the officers club in the evenings. She worked the graveyard shift from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. in the assembly and repair department.

"I met Robert Stack -- the actor -- while I was working in the officers club," Marian beamed. "He was also in the Navy."

Her promotions came quickly. She made petty officer first class when she arrived at Kingsville, Texas, a few months later. On Jan. 11, 1946, Marian was among the first WAVES promoted to chief petty officer -- and got the boot five months and a day later.

"Getting married didn't force me out," Marian noted. "I got pregnant. We couldn't have children and remain in the service back then. So I was discharged on June 12."

Skeets served more than 20 years in the Navy and never saw sea duty. He retired in March 1961 and became a special agent for the Prudential Insurance Co. in Georgetown, S.C.

"My experience with insurance in the Navy was what Prudential needed," he said. He teamed with another agent. "After we swamped Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, there wasn't anymore business there."

His teen-aged newspaper experience helped him land a position as circulation supervisor for six outlying counties for the Charleston News and Courier newspaper. He was home-based in Florence, S.C., a few miles from Charleston.

With hopes of becoming entrepreneurs, the Powerses moved to Florida to open an old rural airport. "That didn't materialize, but we stayed in Orlando and I went to work in supply at McCoy Air Force Base," he said.

When the base closed, they moved to Homestead Air Force Base, where Skeets got a flight line job and later found a position in supply. They later found jobs at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., about 12 miles east of Panama City. Marian helped write course books and did illustrations for the pilots and weapons controllers at Tyndall for 11 years.

Marian was on the administration side of the base and "Skeets" was on the industrial side. He had coffee with her every day when he was on her side sending telegraph messages to higher headquarters.

"We arranged to eat lunch together, so we hung together almost 24 hours a day," Skeets noted. "We traveled to work together, ate lunch together and went back home together."

Marian's on-again, off-again civil service career started in 1954 at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla. Because she went wherever Skeets did, it took her more than 31 years to amass the 20 she needed to retire. When there were no civil service jobs, she found what she could.

"For instance," she said, "when he was on recruiting duty in Georgetown, S.C., I managed a sewing room for about 120 women in a children's dress factory. I taught about 70 girls to use factory sewing machines."

Skeets and Marian retired from civil service the same day -- March 1, 1985.

Skeets said he could whistle pretty good and carry a tune, but playing a musical instrument wasn't his forte. Marian played a slide trombone from the sixth through 12th grades. But they joined a harmonica band anyway.

"We saw five guys putting on a little harmonica show and that really got to us," Skeets said. "They said they could teach us how to play, so we joined the band. Marian learned the bass, and I learned a chromatic. I do have a good ear for music. We built the band up to 32 members, including a piano, guitar, bass and a master of ceremonies."

One-time president of the "Harmonichords," Skeets said he and Marian went on to perform as "Skeebo and Marpo" in schools, nursing homes and parades in Ocala, Fla. They had a good old knee-slapping, hand-clapping harmonica-playing retirement until they started watching nursing home residents react to the music.

"If you saw one resident tapping his foot to the music, that was great, because the rest of them were sleeping in their wheelchairs," Skeets said. "We said, we're over 70 years old and it won't be long before we progress to that state. It made us think.

"One day, our son called and said, 'I want you to go through all your files and clean out all the garbage -- all the stuff I don't need as your executor -- get rid of it,'" Skeets said.

The couple visited the Naval Home in March 1997 and liked it. They put their house on the market and sold it in four weeks. That's the same time it took the home to find adjoining rooms for them. They moved in on May 7, 1997.

Naval Home officials cut an opening between the rooms to allow Skeets and Marian easy passage to each other. While most residents have a single room, the couples at the home can make one bedroom and the other a living room if they desire.

The Powerses are closing in on eight decades of life, but they still keep busy. This is Marian's first year as editor of the Naval Home's "Home Port" newspaper. Skeets helps out as a photographer with his new digital camera and plays on his computer. Marian doesn't have time or space for the oils and acrylics she once enjoyed painting, but she's working on a stained glass project. She started painting in 1973 and has since given away most of her creations.

"Playing in the harmonica band was the highlight of our retirement years, until we got here at the Naval Home," said Skeets. "We love it!"

"This is the place for us for the rest of our lives," Marian exclaimed.

Visit the DoD "Home for Heroes" web site at www.defenselink.mil/specials/heroes/.

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