A soldier in Chet Hildebrand’s U.S. Navy battalion stepped off the train in 1943 and was given a telegraph stating that all leaves had been canceled. Hildebrand ignored the message because it didn’t fit into his plans to marry his high school sweetheart, Marge.
“We knew the [Normandy] invasion was coming up, and we knew where we were headed,” he said.
The couple had three days to get married and have a honeymoon before he would be deployed overseas to serve in World War II. They scrapped all of their previously made wedding plans and went to the courthouse and said their vows 70 years ago on Dec. 14.
The time since has “gone by awfully fast,” Hildebrand said.
The Conway couple — he’s 90, she’s 88 — met as teenagers while attending the same school in Iowa. He talked his best friend, Russell, into asking her, on his behalf, for a first date. Hildebrand was a junior, and she was a sophomore. From that day forward, they were a couple. Reminiscing about the past, both of their faces light up. He liked long, dark hair, she said, and that is what she had before her locks faded to gray.
“I could always feel someone looking at me” when he was around, she said. She had one rival for his affection — a girl named Hilda.
“She wanted her name to be Hilda Hildebrand,” Marge said.
He graduated from high school in 1942, and it wasn’t long until he received a draft notice. He said with a chuckle that to avoid going into the Army, he enlisted in the Navy.
While Chet was serving overseas, Marge worked as a long-distance operator for Northwestern Bell, but that didn’t help the two with communication during the separation. The only form of exchange between them for more than a year was “censored letters.” His came on onion-skin paper with little information, she said. The first letter she received talked about his being seasick while “going over.” It took a little while, he said, to get used to living on a ship.
It wouldn’t be until he came home that she would learn that he was a radioman on a submarine chaser escorting ships across the English Channel. Medals in a case and a plaque hanging on a wall at the couple’s home serve as reminders of his participation in the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
“We stayed on Utah Beach for 30 days, sleeping in a hole dug in the sand,” Chet said. “We got shelled for 10 days straight.”
After he returned from deployment, he finished his military commitment, and during that time, the couple were also apart. After his discharge, he joined his wife and began working at a print shop. The following year, the couple faced another trial with the birth of their only child, Russell. He was born Dec. 23, 1947, with a blood clot at the base of his brain, and Marge also developed life-threatening health problems. Their son was 2 days old before she was allowed to see him. On Christmas night, she was told that he probably wouldn’t make it.
“God had other plans, though,” Marge said. Their son not only lived, but he thrived.
She credits her son — who died a couple of years ago — for one of the most important things in their lives today.
“God gave us Russell to strengthen our faith,” she said.
The couple were always believers, she said, but they weren’t always as faithful to attend services. When Russell was young, she said, he became friends with a pastor’s son and wanted to start attending that church. The Hildebrands became “steady churchgoers,” she said, and have remained so. They are members of the Vilonia Methodist Church.
The printing company where Chet worked declared bankruptcy, and the family moved to Lincoln, Neb. He worked in the print shop at the headquarters of the Roller Skating Rink Operators Association as a lithographer. He was also a photographer. Some of his framed photos hang on the couple’s wall, as well as a retirement plaque from the association.
In 1987, the Hildebrands retired and moved to Arkansas, and it is where they call home. The couple celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in Madison, Wis., with family and friends. At that time, he said, they figured they only had a couple of anniversaries left.
Their son’s death was the most devastating event in their lives, they said. A child, Marge said, shouldn’t die first. However, his legacy lives on, she said, with their two grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
In focusing on the couple’s long marriage, the key to having a good wife is to marry a good person, he said. All couples, he said, have differences. It’s the way they are dealt with that really counts.
“Before you marry, you should also come to terms first before anything else about managing money,” he said. “You are probably going to have some lean years.”
Asking each if they ever thought about trading the other off, he said, emphatically, “no.” Well, maybe a couple of times when she outfished him, he said, teasing. He pointed to a huge mounted walleye hanging on the wall. It is the one she caught, he said. A smile on her face, she said she would stand on the Fifth Amendment.
“When he was trying to teach me to drive,” his “German came out,” she said, teasing him. “It was a hard time. But, I learned. You shouldn’t let your spouse try to teach you, though. I had always heard that.”
The couple said their secret to a long marriage probably is their desire to have a “simple marriage.” Neither had a desire to live extravagantly. Again, they stressed the importance of not allowing finances to cause problems. They both said they still enjoy each other, working in their yard and gardening.
“I still enjoy life in general,” Chet said. “Maybe we will see another couple of anniversaries. You never can tell. The 50th is golden. What comes after 70? ”