An Unforgettable Valentine’s Day Gift
A WWII veteran’s memento now hangs in the Alaska Veteran’s Museum
ANCHORAGE - The night before Valentine’s Day, flower shops and candy aisles across Anchorage were packed with men and women, young and old, searching for the perfect gift for the special people in their lives.
But it’s not always about the traditional bouquets or heart-shaped boxes filled with chocolates: Sometimes, the gift is so personal, so unique and so unexpected, it doesn’t matter what it is or even when it’s given.
It seemed like just a few years back Ronelva Peacock’s husband gave her a gift like that. A silk nightgown and robe hand-crafted by a seamstress in Foggia, Italy, the white stiches and stiff folds of the gown still as pristine as the day Peacock first unwrapped it.
“I guess you’d call him a romantic,” she said, sitting upright on a puffy, pink checkered couch in the sunny sitting room of her South Anchorage condo. Her eyes twinkled behind her thin, wire framed glasses, tight gray curls framing her face.
In 1945, Peacock said “I do” to Lieutenant Donald Gaard in a springtime ceremony in Florida. A few months later, her new husband said goodbye and packed his bags for Foggia to fight out the final days of World War II flying B-17s over Europe. Sitting on her couch, blue-veined hands clasped delicately in her lap, she recalled the separation wasn’t so bad at first.
“He had his job to do and I was teaching so I had my job to do, so things were fine until I received notice he was missing in action,” Peacock said. A faded collection of sepia photographs on the table included a finely-pressed newspaper clipping featuring a neat military headshot and the caption: “Donald Gaard Missing After German Flight.”
Just a few months before the war ended, Gaard had volunteered for a secret bombing mission to Berlin when he was shot down over Brux, Czechoslovakia. “I think probably that was the only parachute jump he ever made; [it] was the one that saved his life,” Peacock said.
Battered, bruised, without a plane but alive, Gaard and the other airmen were held by the Russians until the war ended. He sold half of his torn parachute for 5,000 rubles, but kept the other swath of white fabric tucked away with his other meager possessions.
When the Potsdam Agreement was signed August 2, Gaard began the long trek back to his base in Italy. He was in for an unexpected surprise of his own.
The Russians had never told the American forces Gaard and his crewmates were alive, and Peacock said her husband had been presumed dead all that summer. She remembered the day his foot locker and other possessions had been sent back to her doorstep, and the difficult task of relaying the details of his last flight to her hometown newspaper.
So, when Gaard stumbled onto his base in Foggia, Air Force officials had no current records of him. His pay had been discontinued and he had no way home, and for three months he sold black-market cigarettes and worked other odd jobs to survive. In September, he was finally granted back pay by the U.S Air Force and boarded a boat back home to Peacock.