The cover of UNC alumna Linda McCaffery's book about undying love and hope. Related: Photo of the author at the end of the story.
Before Bill Brenner left to serve in World War II, his wife Josephine promised to write to him twice a week. When 63 of those letters were returned unopened, she didn't know if her husband was dead or alive, but she kept on writing.
She eventually learned that Bill, a physician, had been among those captured by the Japanese shortly after his unit arrived in the Philippines. After surviving the 60-mile Bataan Death March and time in three Japanese death camps, Bill returned home to his wife and son at the end of the war, four years after he had left.
When Linda (Fox) McCaffery, who received her master's degree from UNC in 1976, contacted him to see if he would share his experiences through an oral history project she was working on, he politely declined.
A year later however, McCaffery, a history instructor at Barton Community College in Great Bend, Kan., received a phone call from Brenner, who lived in the nearby town of Larned, saying he had changed his mind.
After McCaffery and Brenner's initial meeting, Brenner brought his wife along for the second. As he recounted his experiences, his wife began to cry.
"Bill never told Josephine what he saw and went through during the war," said McCaffery. "Many of the things he was telling me, she was hearing for the very first time."
During that meeting, McCaffery learned about Josephine's returned letters, sitting in a shoe box unopened, because Bill had decided they'd be too painful to read.
"While discussing the letters, Bill suggested we share not just his story but the hardships his wife endured as well," said McCaffery. "First we thought of putting on a program, then we considered writing an article and eventually, we decided it was best to write a book."
I'm Praying Hard for You - Love Letters to a Death Camp: The World War II Ordeal of Bill and Jo Brenner is a combination of Josephine's letters and Bill's words. The book, which took McCaffery three years to research and write, tells the story of how the couple's love for one another helped them never give up hope, even in the worst of circumstances.
Sadly, Josephine passed away in 2000 before the book was published.
McCaffery and Brenner hope to commission a bronze statue with the proceeds from the book's sales. The statue will be of a soldier returning from war, with a woman and child running toward him, and it'll be dedicated to all who served and all who waited.
Signed copies of the book can be purchased for $27, including shipping, by contacting the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Katie Owston, Junior Journalism Major