High Point woman writes letter to brothers lost to war
HIGH POINT — Betty Neely struggled to find just the right words.
They’ve been written on her heart since she was just a girl, but putting those words to paper — transcribing all of that heartache, all of that pride, all of that love — proved difficult. How do you write a letter that’s been 70 years in the making?
She’s 82 now, the lone survivor of John and Lillie Summers’ five children. She lives in High Point with her husband, Jim, in a tri-level house they’re selling so they can downsize. Sitting at the kitchen table, she gazes at the 12-year-old girl in the photo and smiles wistfully.
“I really don’t remember much, because I was so young,” Neely said. “I just know our house was in turmoil, with people coming and going. It just wasn’t our normal home when my brothers were killed, and I guess it never was again after that. We were all just heartbroken.”
Neely has wonderful memories of her oldest brother, John Jr., who also served during World War II but was sent back to the States after his two brothers were killed; and of an older sister, Maribelle, because she was able to establish relationships with them as she got older. She never got that opportunity with Charles and James, though, so her memories are fewer.
Charles, 11 years older than Betty Jean, was a dashing young man — “People said he looked like Clark Gable,” she said as she studies a photo — and he always seemed to be bringing home pretty girls. An outgoing, happy-go-lucky sort, he often bounded through the front door, picked up his baby sister and swung her around in circles.
James was the closest in age to Betty Jean, though he was still seven years her senior. He was quiet and rather shy, but very kind. They attended grade school together, and James carried Betty Jean’s books as they walked to catch the school bus every morning.
Two months ago, these are the memories Neely clung to as she painstakingly wrote the letter she had longed to write for most of her life. It wasn’t a lengthy letter — scarcely 350 words — but it took her nearly a week to write it.
“It was,” she said softly, “a letter from the heart.”
Betty Neely may not have many memories of Charles and James, but she and other family members have mementoes that chronicle what happened to the two young men in the war: Photographs. Letters from the front. Two Purple Hearts, and James’ Bronze Star. Newspaper clippings and telegrams from the War Department announcing their respective combat deaths. The two Gold Stars Neely’s mother hung in a window — and poems she subsequently wrote — in memory of her sons.
It all began 73 years ago this month, Neely said, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, prompting the United States to enter World War II. Only 9 at the time, Neely remembers playing dolls at a friend’s house on that ill-fated Sunday, when her mother came and got her, saying they had to leave right away.
“On the way home, I could hear my parents talking about the world being in trouble, and that made such an impression on me,” she said. “When I think about it now, I think about how troubled they must have been, because they had three sons who were eligible for the draft.”
All three of Neely’s brothers were eager to serve, she said.
“They were young, strong and healthy guys who wanted to win freedom for our country,” she said, the pride evident in her voice. “They wanted to fight the Japanese and the Germans — they wanted to get those son-of-a-guns.”
Unfortunately, the son-of-a-guns got two of the Summers boys instead.
Charles died first. On July 6, 1944 — exactly one month after the D-Day invasion at Normandy — the 23-year-old infantryman died in France during an ensuing mission. He was killed after climbing out of his foxhole and stepping on a land mine.
James died three months later — on Oct. 10, 1944 — in Italy. Initially reported as missing in action, James’ body was eventually discovered — and his family notified — the following April. The details of how he was killed are not known.
Following James’ death, John Jr. was reassigned stateside, so the family’s last surviving son would no longer face active combat duty.
Despite his reassignment, though, the Summers family nearly fell apart. While John and Lillie spoke little of what had happened to their two sons — other than making proud references to the fact that they were heroes — the couple suffered immensely, Neely said.
“I think my mother probably had a breakdown (after James’ death),” she said. “It was never discussed, but I know she was sick. She was in the bed probably for a couple of months, and the doctor would come to see her back in their bedroom. I think she had a pretty rough time.”
Lillie’s emotional state likely played a role in determining where Charles and James would be permanently laid to rest. As was typical during the war, both young men had been buried in the countries in which they were killed, alongside other U.S. casualties.
“After the war was over, my parents were notified that James’ and Charles’ bodies could be sent home, or they could be buried side by side at Normandy,” Neely said. “They felt like (bringing the bodies home) would just be like going through all of that pain again, and by that time they were beginning to heal. You never forget, but you do heal along the way, and my mother said they just didn’t want to go through all of that again.”
So Charles and James rest at the Normandy American Cemetery, where they are buried side by side among the graves of nearly 9,400 other U.S. casualties of World War II.
To this day, Neely supports her parents’ decision to have the brothers buried at Normandy, but it created a restlessness that has pricked at her heart for 70 years: How could she ever find closure in her brothers’ deaths when they were buried some 4,000 miles from home?
Through the decades, Neely clung to memories and hope.
“One of these days,” she must’ve thought a million times, “I want to visit that cemetery. Just to be there with Charles and James. To tell them I’ve missed them. I’m proud of them. I love them. To tell them thank you for making the supreme sacrifice for our country. One of these days.”
One of these days never came. Life got in the way. Neely’s fear of flying got in the way. She resigned herself to the fact she would never go to Normandy, and thus, would never find the closure she needed in her heart. Family friends visited the cemetery, where they sought out Charles’ and James’ final resting place. They took photos of the graves and brought them home to North Carolina. That helped, Neely said, but not enough.
Five years ago, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr gave a speech at the official Memorial Day ceremonies at the Normandy American Cemetery, during which he paid tribute to American veterans — and specifically cited a pair of brothers from Archdale, N.C.
“Charles and James Summers were everyday Americans who answered the call to service in those difficult times — citizens who became soldiers and left their jobs and families,” he said.
He also spoke of their sister, Betty, who still lived near Archdale and longed to be close to her brothers once more.
Following the speech, Burr called Neely from the cemetery.
“I’m standing at the foot of your brothers’ graves,” he told her, “and I just want to thank your family for the sacrifice that you made.”
Neely cherished that phone call, believing it was as close as she would ever get to her brothers. Then, with great pride, she told friends about the senator’s speech and his personal phone call, paying tribute to her brothers.
One friend from church, in particular — Regis Kline, who lives in Trinity with his wife Patricia — found Neely’s story especially compelling.
“We’re going to visit Normandy in a few years — it’s on our bucket list — and we would like to look up your brothers’ graves,” Kline told her. “Have you ever had anything you’d like to say to your brothers?”
Neely’s heart skipped a beat as she nodded her head. She had nearly 70 years’ worth of things she’d like to say to her brothers.
“Well,” Kline continued, “if you’ll write a letter to them and seal it, nobody will ever see that letter but you and me, and I’ll read it to your brothers at their gravesite.”
Kline said the idea just popped into his head and seemed like the right thing to do.
“I just felt like it would help Betty with closure,” he said. “She’s never been able to go there, so I think there was an emptiness in her heart from never getting to see their graves.”
In early October, as the Klines’ Oct. 21 departure date finally neared, Betty Neely began to write.
The grounds of the Normandy American Cemetery are pristine, a hauntingly beautiful reflection of the care and dignity with which the French people have cared for it. Even in photographs, the image of thousands of white marble crosses set against a sea of impossibly green grass can be moving.
So you can imagine how Regis Kline — a military veteran and World War II buff, unabashed in his patriotism — must’ve felt walking those hallowed grounds.
A tour guide helped the Klines find the graves they were looking for: Plot D, Row 28, Graves 29 and 30 — Staff Sgt. Charles W. Summers of the 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, and Pfc. James S. Summers of the 351st Infantry Regiment, 88th Infantry Division. They are among 45 sets of brothers who are either commemorated or buried in the cemetery, including 33 who are buried side by side.
Standing before their graves, Kline pulled out the sealed envelope he’d been carrying for several days, carefully opened the envelope and pulled out Neely’s letter.
“Dear James and Charles,” he began reading, “I am with you today to tell you.”
Kline didn’t get very far before the enormity of the moment overcame him, and he began to weep. He handed the letter to his wife, who read the remainder of the letter as their tour guide made a video to be shown to Neely upon the couple’s return to North Carolina.
In writing her letter, Neely went first to her faith, quoting a Scripture that reminds her of Charles and James: “Greater Love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Then Neely turned to thoughts of home and family.
“Sentiment overcomes me when I think of what our family could have been like, but it was not to be,” she wrote. “War called, our country needed young and strong fellows like you, and you answered with great excitement. Then our hearts were broken as you both, so young, gave the great Sacrifice.”
She told her brothers how their parents were grief-stricken, but never bitter, and how they always spoke of Charles and James as heroes.
“Both of you have always been my heroes even before you were heroes of all of America,” she added.
She shared a few memories: Of James, quiet and shy, keeping a watchful eye on his young sister, and carrying her books for her. Of Charles, handsome and full of life, swinging his little sister in circles. She mentioned Charles’ letters, which he always signed, “God be with you till we meet again.”
And now, how should Neely sign her own letter, the one she’d been writing for the past 70 years? Where could she possibly find the words to bridge a gap of so many years, so many miles and so many missed moments in their lives?
“How can I ever say thank you for your sacrifice, that just doesn’t seem appropriate,” she wrote. “I can only say you are my heroes, and I have never forgotten you. With all my love, Betty Jean.”
Turns out she found the words she needed in the most likely of places — in her heart, where they’d been all along.