It’s been 20 years — and 20 Veterans Days — since Daphne Cavin shared her World War II scrapbook with a reporter and set in motion a chain of events that touched countless lives and brought her closure about her young soldier husband’s death in France.
It’s not news, but it’s a story worth retelling.
Daphne was 78 at the time of the interview and was living with one of her daughters in Lebanon, but she was 21 and Raymond Kelley was 19 when mutual friend Mamie Gates introduced them at a Sunday school party in August of 1941.
Daphne was a beautician in Lebanon at the time and Raymond was working for Kingan Meat Co. in Indianapolis. They began dating and seeing more of each other.
Raymond was visiting at her parents’ home just south of Lebanon on Old U.S. 52 on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, when news came over the radio about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. “I was sitting on his lap and he pushed me off and ran into the kitchen to tell my mother,” she recalled.
Despite an uncertain wartime future, Daphne and Raymond were married the next June at her parents’ house.
“It was a windy day,” she said, pointing to a photo of the slightly windblown, but happy couple in the front yard of the farmhouse.
Raymond’s draft notice came in October and soon after he left for training at Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg, Miss. Daphne was able to visit him in Hattiesburg and again in Trenton, N.J., before he shipped out for North Africa.
He was assigned to the 45th Infantry Division and participated in the Allied invasion of Italy, landing at Anzio. It was there that he suffered a shoulder injury in a land mine explosion and was sent back to the United States to recuperate.
Fully recovered, he returned to his unit in time for Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of Southern France in August, 1944.
On Sept. 10, the day before troops from this southern spearhead linked up with Allied forces fighting east from the beaches of Normandy, Raymond was killed. He was fatally wounded as his unit prepared to take the French town of Mancrenans.
Daphne had the contents of Raymond’s wallet the day he was killed — a picture of Daphne, his Indiana driver’s license, his Social Security card, a poem Daphne had sent him titled “When you Come Home” and a lock of bright red hair.
“That’s my hair,” she said, noting the years had turned her hair to brown with flecks of gray. The black scrapbook pages also contained Raymond’s red-and-gold 45th Division Thunderbird patch, his blue-and-silver combat infantryman’s badge and the Western Union telegram every soldier’s wife and parents dreaded most.
The lines of teletyped text, hammered out on paper tape and pasted to the yellowing telegram form, read, “The Secretary of War asks that I assure you of his deepest sympathy in the loss of your husband, Private First Class Raymond R. Kelley, who was previously reported missing in action. Report now states he was killed in action on ten September in France ...”
Raymond was buried in a 48-acre Allied cemetery overlooking the Moselle River at Epinal, France. A group of French students from Zionsville Middle School visited his grave in June 1997 and held a brief memorial service there. They brought back photos of the site for Daphne’s album.
Supported by Raymond’s survivor’s benefits and her beautician’s earnings, Daphne lived alone until 1950 when she married Boone County farmer Marvin Cavin.
When she married Marvin, Daphne gave the scrapbook to her sister, lest her new husband think she was pining for Raymond.
She and Raymond had no children, but she had four — daughters Janie and Nancy and twins Oren and Loren — with Marvin.
In 1974, as the Cavins were beginning to think about retirement, Marvin was diagnosed with cancer. He died the following March.
“I would have loved to have been able to retire with him,” Daphne said. “It was a big disappointment, but I was disappointed when no one came home from the war, too.”
Also a World War II veteran, Marvin Cavin spent the war stateside. An acquaintance with the Disabled American Veterans, who attended Marvin’s funeral, learned of Daphne’s earlier marriage to Raymond and suggested she might now be eligible again for Raymond’s survivor’s benefits.
“I could hardly believe it. There I was at the age of 55 having to make my own living again. It started out at about $200 a month and now it’s up to $833 a month. It was like manna from Heaven,” she said.
Things began to gather momentum later in 1998 when Eric Wishnie, a researcher and producer for NBC Nightly News, discovered the reporter’s story while searching for material for what became Tom Brokaw’s best-selling book about the World War II generation, The Greatest Generation.
Wishnie and a production crew came to Lebanon to meet Daphne and recorded a Home of the Brave segment about her lost love for Nightly News and Brokaw came to Indianapolis to attend the Memorial Day dedication of a World War II veterans’ monument with Daphne.
He included Daphne’s story in The Greatest Generation, which sold more than 2 million copies in its first two years in print.
Several of Brokaw’s readers noticed the detail about restarting survivor benefits and contacted Daphne for more information. Jeannette Gagne Norton, another war widow whose story is in the book, was among them.
“I told her how to apply,” Daphne said. “It didn’t take too long — a month or so — and she called me back and said, ‘I just got my first check.’”
“You don’t have any idea how much that helped me,” said Norton, who lived in a suburb of Minneapolis at the time.
“I’d been living on my second husband’s Social Security and was just squeaking by. If it hadn’t been for her (Daphne’s) story, I never would have known.”
Norton’s husband, PFC Camille Gagne, was in the 82nd Airborne Division. He survived combat in Italy and D-Day in France, but died defending the Nijmegen Bridge in the ill-fated Operation Market Garden invasion of Holland. Shipped overseas two weeks after their son, Robert, was born, he died without ever seeing his child.
Her second husband, William Norton, died in 1993. After reapplying for her first husband’s survivor benefits, she received a “huge check” representing a retroactive payment of benefits and monthly checks that increased to $881 in a few months.
Daphne said there were other similar contacts. “Another woman in Virginia who read the book, got my number from ‘information’ and called me about the benefits and, when she got her first check, she wrote back to tell me,” she said. “It just makes me feel good to know my story is helping people.”
RETURN TO RAYMOND
With only the terse War Department telegram and a letter from her young husband’s sergeant, Daphne knew precious little about the circumstances of Kelley’s death. She pushed it to the back of her mind through a second marriage and the raising of four children, but the ache of not knowing how her first love died was always there.
Then, in late 1999, she got a letter, forwarded to her by Brokaw’s staff, from A.C. Clark, Cookeville, Tenn., who had written to Brokaw to thank him for writing the book and wondered if Daphne would like to talk to one of her husband’s buddies who was on patrol with him when he was killed. Daphne called Clark at his home about 80 miles east of Nashville the afternoon of Dec. 10, 1999.
“I’d always wanted to contact her,” said Clark, a retired agricultural extension service agent who also served two years as Tennessee commissioner of agriculture. “But I figured that maybe she’d married again and I didn’t want to disrupt anything and bring back old memories.”
Daphne said her conversation with Clark felt like an early Christmas present. “I feel at peace,” she said. “For 56 years I had wondered if he was staying happy like he always was at home, if the Germans got his body ... And I just thought it would be so wonderful if I could just talk to somebody who knew him over there.
“Then, all of a sudden there’s this book and Mr. Clark read the book and all of a sudden, I’ve done it,” she said. “I feel a completeness that I just can’t describe. I feel more at peace than I ever have.”
Daphne went to be with Raymond and Marvin on Feb. 3, 2010.
Her daughter, Nancy Cavin Pitts, was inspired by her mother’s story and published a book about Daphne and her lost love in June, 2016, titled When You Come Home: The True Love Story of a Soldier’s Heroism and his Wife’s Sacrifice. To date, it has sold more than 11,000 copies on Amazon.com.
More info on widow's benefits
Lisa Goebel, public affairs officer, with the Veterans Administration in Indianapolis said the VA offers two different death benefits that have different requirements in regard to the veteran’s period of service and the widow’s marital status:
• Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) is a monetary benefit paid to eligible survivors of service members who died in the line of duty or eligible survivors of veterans whose death resulted from a service-related injury or disease. The veteran’s period of service is not a requirement for this benefit, and the law states that surviving spouses who remarry on or after Dec. 16, 2003, and on or after attaining age 57, are entitled to continue receiving DIC.
• Death Pension is a monetary, needs-based benefit paid to low-income, un-remarried surviving spouses of deceased veterans with wartime service. Note, the veteran must have wartime service, but that is not limited to WWII. It can be any wartime period.
“Wartime period,” she explained, is not limited to a Congressionally-declared war and includes service in the Korean War, Vietnam, the Gulf War, etc.