In swinging 1940s Hawaii, an eager young sailor courts a trailblazing woman who dreams of joining the Navy herself. The attack on Pearl Harbor upends their lives and solidifies a romance that lasts sixty-seven years.
“There’s two kinds of histories,” Evelyn says, leaning forward feebly from the deep recess of her armchair. “There’s history and herstory. Big difference.”
Bob settles back into his matching lounger and smiles. He’s heard this before.
“His deals with wars and sports. Herstory is a more domestic story.” She pauses. “It’s changing though.”
If any two people can confirm that, it’s Bob and Evelyn. Married for sixty-seven years, they’ve witnessed the ebb and flow of the social tide, tugging it in their own small ways like little moons.
Now, it’s September 2010, and they spend their afternoons dozing in their assisted living apartment in Williamsburg, Virginia, surrounded by pill bottles, knitting patterns and portraits of grandchildren. But amid the usual clutter of old age, certain artifacts—a Chinese carving, a Panamanian spear, a framed war medal—hint that these ninety-year-olds have not always led quiet lives.
* * *
“Joe Hittorff, he was from New Jersey,” Evelyn says. “He was my dancing partner. He just loved to dance. No romance there, but he was willing to teach me his fancy steps.” They went often to Lau Yee Chai’s, she explains, “for the good orchestra, wonderful Chinese food, and because the dance floor bounced. It was our fun place. A lot of the boys didn’t want to take you there because it cost money, but Joe loved to dance. He would enjoy going there any night.”
Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington and the Andrews Sisters dominated the airwaves of 1941 that stretched to the string of rocks in the middle of the Pacific that someone long ago named Hawaii. There, soaring melodies permeated the night air, leaking out of Lau Yee Chai’s restaurant, where young naval officers would take twenty-year-old Evelyn Momsen to dance.
Evelyn’s family had moved to Honolulu from Washington, D.C. when her father, Captain Charles Momsen, was transferred to the Oahu naval base. As a girl, she had dreamed of going to the Naval Academy like he did, but the captain made it clear the Navy was no place for a woman. She enrolled in the University of Hawaii business school at his behest, although she preferred to study painting. “Daddy said I had to learn to do something useful besides art,” she snorts. When not in class, she traipsed the shimmering beaches with her friends and male admirers.
She and her date were waiting at the bus stop one day in the summer of ’41 when Bob Hailey drove up in his car and tried to cut in. The Texan, an Eagle Scout who had worked in the oil fields to support his family, was new to the island, having recently graduated from the Naval Academy.
“I was just standing on the street corner, minding my own business, and Bob offered a ride,” Evelyn says. Her grin is elfish, and her eyes betray the same spark they carry in photos from her Hawaii days. “Of course I was with a classmate of his at the time, and Bob claims he offered me a ride, but the classmate came along.”
“Well it was worthwhile going around the block!” Bob says. His frame, once lanky, is bent now, but his long, serious face retains its dignity. He looks at his wife tenderly, but she’ll have none of it.
“You just wanted him to introduce you,” Evelyn teases. “This guy I was dating liked to come around and borrow my parents’ car so we could go on the date. I was getting tired of that, so I said, ‘Mother needs the car today; we’ll have to take the bus.’ I was going to ditch him anyway.”
The clever car ride earned Bob a spot in Evelyn’s social circuit.
“We had a lot of dates out in Hawaii,” Bob recalls. “Overlooking the ocean at Diamond Head, we would sit there and watch the clouds go by, talk.”
“I found he had an imagination, and I like an imagination,” Evelyn says. “Some of the other guys never would talk about things like, ‘What do you see in the clouds?’”
Bob also spent time with her family, hoping to make a good impression.
“I fell in love with her mother,” he remembers, laughing.
“That’s true!” Evelyn chimes in.
“Decided I would like to have her as a mother-in-law,” Bob says.
“I had a very lovable mother,” Evelyn explains. “She felt like all those young men were her sons. She spoiled them, went shopping with them.”
Meeting Evelyn’s father, the captain, was more daunting. The future vice admiral had served in World War I, received a Distinguished Service Medal for inventing the “Momsen Lung,” a breathing apparatus for submarine escapes, and rescued thirty-three men from the U.S.S. Squalus, a submarine that sank off the coast of New Hampshire. Evelyn wrote her father about the men she dated, and when his ship pulled back into port, he invited Bob to join him and his crew for dinner. Wearing his best dress whites, Evelyn’s suitor shakily climbed aboard.
“I was a young aide, kind of intimidated to say the least,” Bob, twenty-three at the time, says. “But they were very informal, had on aloha shirts, played badminton and talked. It was a very pleasant evening. Her father and the admiral were very easy to talk to.”
Captain Momsen was impressed. “When he met Bob, he wrote me a letter and said, ‘That’s the best one you’ve trotted by yet,’” Evelyn says.
It was a golden year in Pearl Harbor, filled with flirting, dancing and cloud-gazing. But on December 7, Japanese bombs shattered the peace of the tropical playground.
“We had quarters that were right over the harbor, had a beautiful view,” Evelyn says. “That day, we started hearing explosions all around us. We saw these Japanese planes going right by our window. The marines were firing up at it and hitting our roof, so we got a little shrapnel.”
The first bombs hit before eight a.m. that Sunday morning. The captain was at the office investigating a report about a submarine detonation in the harbor, so Mrs. Momsen, Evelyn and a visiting friend improvised.
“We saw in a movie somewhere that when guns started firing, you dropped on the floor,” Evelyn says. “So we were on the floor, and my mother came in and said, ‘How can you lie around on a day like this?’ It was like watching a movie, only in color, ’cause our movies at the time were black and white. We had an exciting day, terrible.”
Smoke engulfed the harbor, obscuring the damage. Women and children evacuated the base and spent the night in town with acquaintances. When the Momsen women returned home the next evening, they covered the windows and sat together in the dark.
“All blacked out that night, we sat around listening to what we could find on the radio, but there was not much,” Evelyn says. “It was a kind of spooky time.” The stations cancelled their programming to leave the airwaves free, she explains, because everyone was sure the Japanese would be back. Without access to any information, the young woman who itched for the adventure of the Navy could only curl up with her mother and wonder if Bob was safe.
He was heading back toward her on board the heavy cruiser U.S.S. Indianapolis. The ship was anchored off Johnston Atoll, some three hundred miles from Oahu, the morning of the attack. When news of it reached the crew, they joined a carrier group for aircraft protection and sped toward Pearl Harbor, arriving a week later. As the Indianapolis pulled into port, Bob saw blackened ships off their blocks, sinking into the harbor, with rescue missions still trying to extricate men from their smoldering hulls. Eighteen ships and 2,403 Americans were lost. Dancing Joe Hittorff died on the U.S.S. Oklahoma. Luckily for the Navy, the shipyard, repair facilities and oil tanks had been spared. Luckily for Bob, Evelyn had been too.
* * *
There is a time to dance and a time to mourn. President Franklin Roosevelt’s declaration of war, broadcast over the radio, silenced big band jollity. After Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. on December 11, hit music shows were replaced by troop movement reports and enlistment campaigns. Lines snaked around grocery stores as supplies grew scarce. Rations limited access to clothes and gasoline. School ended for Evelyn, whose first contribution to the war effort was informing her neighbors about the community bomb shelter. Remembering those conversations makes her smile.
“They had to be told they couldn’t take any pets,” she says. “My job was to go around the top row, where all the admirals lived, and tell all the admirals’ wives they couldn’t take Fifi into the bomb shelter. And you think that wasn’t dangerous? That was about as dangerous as it got for a civilian!”
For men in uniform, though, military service acquired new gravity. “It had been more of a training exercise before the war began,” Evelyn says, “and then suddenly it became very real. People getting killed…” She trails off.
That possibility became more personal in January 1942, when Bob shipped out from Pearl Harbor on the Indianapolis, destined to be in the thick of the war in the Pacific. While island hopping, the cruiser attacked Japanese ports and warships from Guadalcanal to New Guinea to the Aleutians.
Evelyn, her Hawaiian dancing days brought to an end, returned to D.C. with her mother to study legal filing, pulling papers at all hours for a senator from Missouri named Harry Truman.
“So that left me writing letters to all these nice boys,” Evelyn says of her slew of acquaintances.
“She told all of her boyfriends in Honolulu goodbye,” Bob laughs.
He and Evelyn exchanged Victory Mail—letters written on stationary, copied onto microfilm and shrunken to save space—and phonograph
records, which, back then, were little 78s sponsored by Pepsi-Cola, and approved by the naval censor. Bob made these “letters on a record” using sound equipment on his ship, while Evelyn created her own on a recording kiosk at a USO club.
“It’s amazing when you’re writing letters how you find out a lot about people,” Evelyn says. “I think that’s when we began to see we had a lot in common. Our relationship grew by leaps and bounds.”
“She wrote such interesting letters—” Bob begins.
“He wrote interesting letters!” Evelyn interrupts.
Bob brings out a brown envelope, so worn it reveals the imprint of the phonograph disc inside. This is a recorded message from your man in service, the envelope reads. But he wasn’t officially hers, not yet.
In 1942, Evelyn received a record from Bob, postmarked from the South Seas. The entire household gathered to listen.
“Everyone was sitting around, so excited to hear letters from the troops,” she says. “So I put it on—and it was a proposal of marriage. The whole family was sitting there hearing this gush. They loved it, and I was so embarrassed.”
From out in the war-torn ocean, Bob made his intentions clear. But Evelyn was not easily won. Just because he asked didn’t mean she would accept.
In March 1943, Bob’s ship arrived in San Francisco for repairs. Captain and Mrs. Momsen were there on temporary duty and welcomed him. “That’s where I snagged Evelyn,” Bob says, as she rolls her eyes and hides a smile. “With her parents’ help,” he adds sheepishly. “We kept calling her and calling her and she finally agreed to come out and be with us.”
“Next thing I knew I was married to him!” Evelyn exclaims. “They got together and decided they had to have a party, and might as well have a wedding. They said, ‘Come on out and marry Bob.’”
So she did. It meant giving up a lucrative job in D.C., she is keen to point out, where she had just been offered a promotion. Even so, Evelyn bought a plane ticket to California. She was bumped from the flight because servicemen took priority, however, and had to travel by train instead. She arrived on the eve of her wedding, she recalls.
“Same day of the wedding, dear,” Bob interjects.
“Oh, yes.” She continues. “I was supposed to be out there a week early, but when I had to take a train my week was up.”
Evelyn disembarked at five a.m. She wanted to buy a white blouse to go with her navy blue dress suit for the ceremony, but her father was in no mood for delays.
“Daddy said, ‘We got a lot to do. You have a wedding to go to at four o’clock.’ I said, ‘Well we haven’t seen each other for eighteen months. I will go out and be with him and decide whether I want to get married or not.’”
Remembering their reunion, Bob grows sentimental.
“We had lots of time driving out to get the marriage licenses,” he says. “I was driving the speed limit, thirty-five miles per hour. Everyone was passing me. We got back home, told her father, ‘Everyone sure was driving fast today!’ He said, ‘You were driving thirty-five kilometers per hour.’ It was an English car, one the Navy had bought. Gave us lots of extra time together, didn’t it, Evelyn?”
“We had to get blood tests, get the license, find me a blouse, all in one day!” she fumes. “That’s not the way you plan a wedding!”
Bob defends himself, claiming he and the captain planned as best they could. They’d even shopped for Evelyn’s trousseau chest.
“A trousseau is the lady’s garments that are most personal, her new nightie and robe and her undies, that you dress up in to attract a male—mostly your husband,” Evelyn grins. “Usually lacy and satiny and filmy and disgusting.” She explains: “He loved her torso, she loved her trousseau, and that’s how her trousseau got tore so! You wouldn’t believe the sexy stuff that they bought; it’s still in the bottom of that chest!” She is outraged that her father and fiancé shopped at stores where models exhibited the lingerie.
Bob emits a deep, creaky laugh. “They were very nice. I bought her pearls!”
Evelyn Momsen and Bob Hailey married on March 26, 1943, in San Francisco. Before their honeymoon adventures in the city, the captain offered Evelyn marital advice.
“My father said, ‘Young lady, you better learn to be more subservient or you’re going to lose that man!’” she says. “Can you believe that?”
By the time peace was forged two years later, herstory was changing course. “After the war you found a lot of encouragement for women to return to the home and decorate their houses and have cute little kitchens and wear cute little aprons, and it didn’t work too well,” Evelyn says. “More women went to work than had ever done before, and they kind of liked it!”
The couple and their three children lived together when Bob’s assignments allowed, traveling to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he counseled naval prisoners; Norfolk, Virginia, where he commanded a destroyer; Houston, where he was executive officer of Rice University’s Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps; and the Panama Canal Zone, where he served as District Intelligence Officer for Latin and South America. When Bob was at sea, he and Evelyn wrote letters as they always had. Evelyn cared for the kids at home, filling their days with art projects, poems and creative cooking. The couple’s daughter, Anne, remembers her mother as mostly unfazed by running the household–until she and the kids all came down with the mumps at once.
What did provoke Evelyn was injustice. When she detected it, she charged into battle. Furious when Norfolk closed its public schools in 1958 to prevent integration, she organized a makeshift school at her church. When Bob retired from the Navy as a captain in 1965 and took a teaching job, she joined the League of Women Voters, advocating fiercely for the Equal Rights Amendment. One state senator who repeatedly ignored the bill mockingly suggested Evelyn run for office herself. So she did, winning a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates in 1973 and serving eight years, then serving in the state Senate from 1982 to 1984 as the body’s second-ever female member. Evelyn supported environmental protection legislation, reproductive rights and the E.R.A. Bob supported Evelyn.
“Nothing surprised me about Evelyn,” he says fondly. “I was delighted to have her find something that was challenging.” When the General Assembly was in session, Evelyn lived in Richmond hotel rooms Monday through Thursday, returning to Bob in Norfolk on the weekends. “I didn’t spend much time up there,” Bob says. “I didn’t want them to have the feeling I was trying to run things.”
His concern was well founded. Evelyn faced resistance in the Capitol, even in the cafeteria, where confused employees refused to serve her hot dogs they said were saved for representatives. During an industrial tour for General Assembly members and their families, the factory guide accidentally gave Bob a sweatshirt souvenir meant for the politicians.
“But when I came up, they said, ‘No, they’re for the legislators,’” Evelyn bristles. “So he got one and I had to fight for one. Naturally since he was a man, they gave it automatically to him.”
“There was so much of that that I wanted to stay away and let her do that for herself,” Bob says gently.
Evelyn fought back in her own ways, sponsoring “women’s bills” and carrying a tote bag that read, ‘A woman’s place is in the House – and in the Senate!’” Virginia never ratified the E.R.A., but before Evelyn retired from politics, she gathered enough support to secure inheritance law reform that granted full property rights to widows whose spouses die without wills. “It’s very significant,” she told The Washington Post at the time. “What we are saying here again is that marriage partners are equal, that marriage is in fact a partnership.”
Two decades later, Evelyn seized one more chance to turn the tide. In 2004, she and Bob traveled to Panama City, Florida, where she
sponsored the commissioning of the U.S.S. Momsen, a new destroyer named for her father. At the end of the ceremony, sponsors traditionally charge the crew to “Man our ship and bring her to life!” Noticing the young female sailors onboard, Evelyn instead cried, “Board our ship and bring her to life!”
* * *
Bob and Evelyn sit in matching armchairs, white-haired and long-earlobed. The former legislator points out her paintings. The retired sailor ignores his military decorations. They think about their sixty-seven years together, and their lives today.
“Boring,” Evelyn declares.
“Not boring, come on,” Bob protests.
She smiles. “Oh, not boring.”
“It’s a pretty wonderful relationship actually,” he says.
“You get used to him after a while,” she teases. “I just can’t imagine the time I wasn’t married. He dated other girls, and I dated a lot of other boys, and we decided the others were not worthy of us and we married each other. Do you think it’s a prehistory thing, [the idea] that you’re supposed to get married to a certain person?”
He thinks. “If you’re lucky you can. I think I was lucky. I’m thankful for each day together.”
“You mean we weren’t predestined?” She laughs at him, but Bob isn’t deterred.
“There’s something very special about it I think,” he says softly. “A kind of unsophisticated character from Texas meets someone who has traveled as much as Evelyn had. I wouldn’t say she’s sophisticated though! She’s a fun, fun person. Three wonderful children and some great, great friends. We’ve had a good life.”
Evelyn nods, but can’t resist the last word. “Sixty-seven years, we’ve gotten to the point where I can’t hear him, he can’t hear me, nothing matches.”
“We laugh about it,” Bob insists.
“Sometimes!” Evelyn winks.
* * *
Six months after that playful exchange, Evelyn Momsen Hailey died on M,arch 29, 2011. Six months later, on September 26, Bob followed her.
On October 19, 2013, their ashes were placed in the Naval Academy Columbarium with full honors, a flag ceremony, volleys of gunfire and the playing of “Taps.”
According to one of their sons, Chris Hailey, the couple specifically chose to be placed in Annapolis rather than Arlington Cemetery. “They both preferred the Naval Academy,” he said. “And I think my mother in particular was pleased with the idea because she had always dreamed of being a midship-person, which wasn’t possible back in those days. How proud she’d have been to see the women who are running the place today! So she’s there at last.”
* * *
Rebecca Koenig is a St. Louis-based journalist who works as managing editor for Town & Style, a weekly culture and lifestyle magazine. Originally from D.C., she also writes for sports blog Crim Del Harris. Follow her at rebeccalkoenig.com and on Twitter @becky_koenig.
Molly Carlisle is a painter and illustrator living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.