Before Army Air Corps 1st Lt. Winslow Gardner of Hyrum left San Francisco for his overseas assignment in November 1942, he took the prized engagement ring out of his wallet and put it on Louise Dixon's finger. The excited young woman didn't realize she would never see him again.
As an Air Corps co-pilot, Gardner flew 40 missions in a B-17 and was finally ready to come home. Instead, the 22-year-old Weber State College graduate volunteered for an armed reconnaissance mission off the coast of New Guinea on June 1, 1943.Twelve Japanese fighters found Gardner's plane and shot it down. Three of the crew's 10 members parachuted to safety before the plane's gas tank exploded, but Gardner wasn't one of them.
The plane wreckage was not found until 1987, when a forest survey company discovered a B-17 cockpit in the jungles of New Britain - and it had Gardner's remains in it.
Finally, last month they were returned to his relatives for burial in the Hyrum City Cemetery - nearly 48 years after Gardner was shot down. One of the people attending the memorial service on May 4 in Salt Lake City was Louise Dixon Larkin of Ogden, now 70.
It was a wrenching experience for her.
"It opened up again the misery of those years," she said. "We had tried so hard to find out what happened. Those were not easy years. It's like something you read about. You just don't wipe those things out of your life. I always wondered if he were dead, but I knew he had to be. The plane exploded and only three parachuted over enemy territory. I knew there was no chance that Winslow was alive."
Louise Dixon and Winslow Gardner fell in love while attending Weber State College together. He took aviation courses, and she majored in home economics. She remembers that he was student body treasurer and a "big man on campus" who would have probably become a dentist.
He took flying lessons the year they were sophomores, and in December he went into the Army Air Corps.
When the Air Corps sent him to California, "I went to Bakersfield to see him. It was the night the Japanese bombed the Aleutians. He carried my engagement ring in his wallet but didn't give it to me yet. I went back to Utah. Then, the week before Thanksgiving, he called and said he was about to go overseas, and so I went to meet him in San Francisco. I toured San Francisco that week with his B-17 crew."
She spent four days there, each day thinking that she would wake up and hear that they had already gone. On the last day, when he slipped the ring on her finger, all the crew members felt better. They worried he would lose it if he carried it with him overseas.
"Those were desperate years. The young people today don't understand those years. The gulf war was over so quickly, and it seemed that this one would never be over."
When Louise met Ferrin Larkin, who had also served in the war, they hit it off instantly.
"We knew on our first date that we had known each other forever. On our third date we had such a good time that he asked me out the next night, but I said no. I said, `I've been hurt and I'm not going to like you.' But we did go out, and instead of going to a play we just talked. Afterward we decided to get married - and it was a marriage made in heaven."
Together they had six children and 19 grandchildren. Larkin, a mortician, passed away five years ago. Louise Dixon Larkin says that "everyone loved him. He was a great man."
After she married Larkin "the books" on her relationship with Gardner were closed. "I never mentioned it to our kids. I didn't refuse to talk to them about it - I just didn't offer to. There was such apprehension."
With the books unexpectedly opened again, she feels more comfortable talking about this bittersweet period of her life - knowing that the final chapter has been written.