Minnesota's Greatest Generation

B.J. and Jon Gersey: Navy Nuptials

Waiting until the end of a war that seemed to stretch forever into the future was hard for some young couples of Minnesota's Greatest Generation who were eager to marry and begin a life together. Some chose to tie the knot before the war ended. In the case of military couples, this meant a transfer for one of them, as husbands and wives were not permitted to be stationed at the same base, or in the same theater of operations. Elizabeth (B.J.) Hughes and Jon J. Gersey met and married at Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida. B.J. remembered a few "waves" at the beginning of the courtship that soon turned to "smooth sailing" for this Navy couple.

After completing my radio training at the University of Wisconsin Navy Training School, I was assigned active duty at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida (NASJAX). My rate was Petty Officer Third Class Radioman. During my first year at Jax, I was trained as an Air Traffic Controller in order to relieve a man in that job at Jax. The Navy needed male radiomen overseas so they asked about five of us if we would like to train as Controllers. I readily said I would like that training.

In 1944, I earned my Radioman 2c (second class) rating and began planning my leave to go to my home in Duluth, Minnesota in June. The Navy gave me the privilege of christening a Navy ship while I was on leave. I have a lot of great memories of that event.

Meanwhile, Jon Gersey trained to be a Radioman at the Navy Training School in Moscow, Idaho, and had spent two years at Naval Air Station Trinidad, also as a Radioman. In July of 1944, he had already received his Radioman 1c promotion and became my boss, the Traffic Chief.

As he reported to the Officer of the Day (OOD) in the Administration building at Jax, he walked into our office, put his seabag down off his shoulder, and exclaimed, "Women! I'm not going to serve with women!" He went back to the OOD and ask for a different assignment. The OOD said, "Sailor, you're in the Navy and you'll go wherever you are assigned. Get back upstairs and get to work!" And so he did...

You can imagine how the entire staff of women was thrilled by that remark! I suppose he didn't think we were competent, and that he had worked only with men in Trinidad. He soon realized that he had to learn to work with women, and he finally began to soften up and accept us.

My first personal interaction with Jon didn't go very well either. Usually, the circuits would slow down on the midwatch (midnight to 8:00 a.m.) so someone on watch would grab a dust cloth and try to make the office a bit cleaner after all-day windows open and no air conditioning. I dusted everything that looked dusty and then went to Jon's desk. He was "resting" back in his swivel chair with his feet on the desk. I asked him to please move his feet so I could dust his desk too. He said, "YOU move them," with a slight grin on his face. I just glared at him and walked away, saying silently to myself, "Let him clean his own desk."

Things warmed up, little by little, when a hurricane brushed across on my birthday in September of 1944. We were stranded in our office because many trees had been uprooted due to the high winds and rain. Traffic on the base was at a standstill. Rations of Hershey bars and hot tomato soup were brought to us, supposedly for extra energy, as we manned the circuits and couldn't get to the mess hall.

After shoulder-cramping hours on the circuits, I asked someone to place relieve me for a few minutes so I could stretch my shoulders and ease the pain. Jon came over and massaged my neck and shoulders over and over until the pain subsided. I looked around, smiled and said, "Thanks, Jon," and Jon said, "Any time."

The number 24 was very important in our courtship. We had our first date on November 24 and went bowling. I told him I had never bowled but would love to try. My first game was 132 and he wanted to know if I really had never bowled before. My next two games were in the mid-70s so he began to believe me. We went to a diner for a snack and Jon continued to put nickels in the booth's nickelodeon for the same song, over and over. It wasn't until we were on the bus back to the base that I realized that the song was "Don't Fence Me In."

When Jon spent Christmas at home in Elmhurst, Illinois he sent me three cards with baby kittens on the covers. This told me that he remembered that I had once said that I wasn't fond of cats but loved little kittens. I began to realize that Jon was someone I really cared for. He was a gentle man and a gentleman.

Jon gave me my engagement ring on January 24, 1945 and our Communications Officer immediately had him transferred to a Navy base at Cocoa Beach, Florida (an area later named the Kennedy Space Center). Married couples couldn't work together in those days. Jon said he wanted me to know that diabetes was very strong in his family, his mother having died of the disease shortly before Jon reported to NASJAX. I accepted that fact with no reservations and we planned to be married on February 24 at the Catholic Chapel on the base. Jon gave me his mother's engagement ring, vintage 1918, which she had willed to him for his bride. I was very honored to wear it.

My sister, Marilyn Hughes, traveled from Duluth to be my maid of honor. Our Navy buddy, Bob Duncan, was Jon's best man. We had a small reception in town for twelve of our Radioman friends, and we left by train to spend our two-day honeymoon at Cocoa Beach, Florida the next morning. Jon returned to his duties at his base and I went back to the Comm Office in Jax to monitor the circuits again at NASJAX. I found it interesting that the Navy supplied me with a wallet-size copy of our marriage certificate so I could check into a hotel with Jon, but he didn't need such proof. We managed to switch duty watch every now and then so we could spend time together in Jax.

In early June, I found that I was pregnant. In those years, a Navy servicewoman who was pregnant could not remain on active duty. Jon and I took our leaves to visit each other's families in Illinois and Minnesota. I received my Honorable Discharge in July 1945, after 34 months of active duty. I returned to Duluth and lived with my family until Jon was discharged in November. We were thrilled to welcome our son Tom on February 1, 1946. Jon then returned to the Chicago area and stayed with his family while he found employment and an apartment. I flew with Tom to Chicago in June to join Jon. Our apartment was lovely - third-floor front in a six-plex brick building - at the 1946 rental price of $45 a month. We were very happy!

We lived in Chicago for over seven years, during which time our daughter Leslie was born. Following a visit to Minneapolis in mid-1953, we agreed that moving to a home in Richfield would be to our children's advantage. Jon was especially pleased with Minnesota's lakes and all the outdoor facilities for our family to enjoy. He made friends quickly and became an avid sportsman, enjoying fishing, golfing, hunting and bowling. My two sisters living in the Minneapolis area and their families rejoiced with Jon when he bowled his 300 game. We were so proud of him!

I enjoyed raising my children, serving as a Cub Den mother, as well as participating in and chairing various fund drives. Jon and I organized our block parties where our neighbors and the children enjoyed good food and family camaraderie. Adults and children had a lot of fun taking part in races on our street, which we had blocked off at each end. What good times we enjoyed in the '50s!

Jon passed away in 2000 after our 55th wedding anniversary. Those were wonderful years for all four of us Gerseys.

And it all began at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida!


Gersey, Elizabeth (B.J.) Hughes, B.J. and Jon Gersey's Marriage. Used with permission.