Recalling her love of a lifetime ago, Geraldine Marshall spoke of the sky-high feelings she would get from a young West Duluth pilot she married, then lost on a trail of smoke within the whirlwind of World War II.

"He used to wiggle his wings at me," she said of Frederick Delbern Jr., who'd been a Denfeld High School football star and amateur pilot before voluntarily enlisting in the Army Air Corps. "I wouldn't go up in the plane with him. I was afraid of it, so I didn't put myself in that position."

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Marshall's fear of heights kept her committed to walking the terra firma of Duluth's sidewalks all her life - until she was slowed recently by a cracked heel.

Confined, for now, to the carpeted halls of St. Ann's Residence in downtown Duluth, she described her daily routine with a wink: "I take a nap in the afternoon - I work so hard in the morning, you know."

Earlier this month, Marshall, 98, retold her story and, in doing so, revealed a homefront perspective fraught with challenges all its own.

"It was a good life," Marshall said, "except for all the sadness."

Charlie Hanson
Charlie Hanson

Marshall listened while her nephew, Charlie Hanson, spoke of Geraldine's enduring kindness through it all, and how she long ago gave a chrome coffee pot to a local priest so he could boil water for tea.

"I'm Duluth's oldest minimalist," she said of a propensity to shed her possessions for charity.

Hanson ticked through a list of things Marshall has shared or done without, starting with a wooden dining room table she donated to a family victimized by a fire. She's sold all of her jewelry, save for a single treasure her mother left her, and gifted the proceeds to Catholic schools. A breast cancer survivor, Marshall never had children, but said she always wanted four. She mostly did without her father, a woodsman who was hardly around until he drifted away for good. The kids had to be put into an orphanage once during a particularly tough time for the family during the Great Depression.

"My mother did a fine job with two boys and one girl," Marshall said, describing growing up on tiny Elm Street in what is now Lincoln Park. "We never had much, and we were used to it. That's the way you lived."

For her hardest sacrifice of all, Marshall split a military life-insurance option, following her husband's death, with his mother.

"He would have liked that," she said, putting a tissue to work. "Oh, that makes tears come."

Delbern was designated missing in action after the final flight of the B-17 known as "Lonesome Polecat II" in December 1943. A decade went by without him before Marshall followed the advice of her priest and moved on, spending the next 60 years married and in love with another West Duluth son, Joseph Marshall, now also deceased.

Until recently, Geraldine Marshall went her whole life declining to register for military benefits owed to her, Hanson said, believing others needed the modest sums more.

She has never stopped caring for Delbern and always kept his framed portrait close by.

"I really loved that man - I'll never forget him," she said. "He was in my prayers every night."

Geraldine Marshall hugs a picture of her first husband, Frederick Delbern Jr., as she remembers their life together.
Geraldine Marshall hugs a picture of her first husband, Frederick Delbern Jr., as she remembers their life together.

A soldier's wife

Delbern and Marshall pinballed across the country with his training shortly after they married in May 1942.

She got to know his fellow lieutenants, their wives and the other crewmembers as special people. Many years later, she made a series of trips to reunite with them, boarding Greyhound buses, sometimes with her mother as a travel partner, bound for the far-flung locations of the seven survivors and their families.

Her nephew explained the reason behind the closeness of the tight-knit group.

"The whole crew was together, because the B-17 crews were billeted together," said Hanson, a former schoolteacher and amateur historian of his uncle's fateful flight. "The B-17 crews that started together, finished together."

Deeply in love, the couple said goodbye at a hotel in Spokane, Wash., in October 1943, but not before he bought her a polka-dotted dress, which elicited a timeless studio portrait of the couple looking their happiest.

Geraldine and Frederick Delbern Jr. in a photo taken in Spokane, Wash., just before he was called to war. (Geraldine Marshall)
Geraldine and Frederick Delbern Jr. in a photo taken in Spokane, Wash., just before he was called to war. (Geraldine Marshall)

"They went from Spokane to Nebraska to be outfitted in cold-weather gear, and then they flew off to Greenland and over to England," Hanson said of the 10-member crew. "That was the last she saw of him."

Marshall returned home to Duluth and found work. Swept up by an economy that turned to women to fill even its most rigorous jobs, she landed at the Duluth Paper Box Company, which she recalled as "Van Vick's" for the owner's last name. It was located near the area now occupied by the Verso paper mill in West Duluth. She walked to work, of course, and spent double-digit years at the box company - making boxes that held everything from the locally made Diamond tools to fancy chocolates.

"I ran all them machines," Marshall said. "I was a whiz at the pedals. Mine was a machine that would deliver little staples to hold the corners together. They were small boxes."

Sometime after what was a heroic last flight on Dec. 16, 1943, Delbern's letters stopped arriving home to Marshall. The love letters she'd sent in response were later delivered back to her, Marshall said, and she preserved all correspondences pertaining to Delbern chronologically in boxes.

Delbern's Purple Heart also arrived in the mail protected in velvet and meticulously packaged. It went unopened for decades until Marshall took it from her drawer and delivered it for display at the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior in 2013.

"It was originally supposed to be a short six-month exhibit," said Briana Fiandt, curator of collections, describing its popularity. "It's stayed up longer than anyone expected."

Marshall also saved the two-sentence telegram that came to her door in January 1944, informing her that her husband was missing in action.

It ushered in one of the saddest periods in her life.

"(There was) crying - lots of crying," she said. "But I was working all the time, too, and you couldn't cry at work."

With a tear in her eye, Geraldine Marshall recalls the aftermath of her first husband's death. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com
With a tear in her eye, Geraldine Marshall recalls the aftermath of her first husband's death. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

The fight in the air

Another of the perfectly preserved letters arrived for Marshall on Nov. 11, 1945. Written by one of the surviving airmen, a sergeant named Charles Schreiner, the typewritten letter exists as a stunning example of wartime correspondence.

"When the showdown came we gave our best," it said. "Our ten men fought splendidly as a team."

The late Schreiner - he died in 2000 - was responding to a private letter from Marshall asking for a "better picture" of what happened to her husband. Across seven pages he detailed hell breaking loose in the sky 5 miles above Bremen, Germany.

The 412th Squadron of the 95th Heavy Bomber Group took part in an air raid as hundreds upon hundreds of grounded Nazi anti-aircraft batteries lit into the sky and made it appear "like a piece of cloth with a polka-dot pattern from all the Flak (sic) the Germans were throwing up," Schreiner wrote.

A violent explosion below the Delbern-piloted aircraft sent the Lonesome Polecat II spinning into a dive. The crew scrambled to overcome the blast and subsequently being "pinned to the floor by centrifugal force." Delbern and possibly his mortally wounded co-pilot arrested the dive after losing almost a mile of altitude.

They stabilized just in time to gamely face an attack by Nazi fighters that wound up strafing the B-17 with "exploding machine-gun fire." A beat-up heap before she left the ground, the four-engine "Flying Fortress" was reeling.

"The engine fires were melting the metal off the wings," wrote Schreiner, "and the plane was vibrating violently ..."

Despite being struck by a bullet in his left arm, Delbern crawled through the narrow catwalk to the compact radio room and gave the command for everyone else to abandon the craft immediately.

Schreiner was among the seven parachuting survivors, some of whom were captured and imprisoned for 18 months by the Germans. The plane disappeared in front of a trail of smoke as it headed toward its fateful crash off Netherlands' Texel island in the nearby North Sea.

"It did not explode in all the time it was in my sight," wrote Schreiner, who went on to praise Delbern. "As a plane commander he could not be beat and as a pilot he was aces."

At least three books have been written about the last flight of the Lonesome Polecat II - two of them by Michael Darter, who lost his only brother, Eugene, aboard the plane.

"This is a tragic but heartwarming war story of a young wife left behind after the 'love of her life' vanishes over Germany," Darter wrote to the News Tribune.

Asked about the sacrifices made by her first husband and other men she knew, Marshall reflected on the cost.

"It must have been important," she said, "or they wouldn't have taken so many healthy young men."