1944: A Love Odyssey

The Texas Story Project.

As he made the decision to accompany a future Mrs. Ruth Belew, Mr. John Seymour Belew traveled coach alongside her from Texas to New York. Little did they know what journeys awaited them on their quest to a fulfilling seventy years together in the midst of chaos in the United States.

Our story begins with Dr. John Belew, who was born November 3, 1920 in Waco, Texas. John and a future Ruth McAtee Belew grew up a block and a half away from each other in Waco, Texas, the city that brought them together. Growing up in small town Waco, everybody knew each other in their tight-knit neighborhood. The children roller-skated and played baseball and football together in the neighborhood to stay out of trouble. The boys and girls rarely intermingled. Life was simple.

Fast forward many years later, and John has just graduated from Baylor University with a bachelor of science in chemistry in 1941. In hopes of pursuing a doctorate, John was just beginning work on  his Master’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin in September of 1941 when he received an unexpected message.

Around this time, on June 22,1941, to be exact, Hitler ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union. Tensions were running high amongst the Axis and Allied countries and therefore the U.S. needed more men.

John had only been at UT Austin for 3 weeks when a telegram from the United States Civil Service Commission reached him, urging him to apply for a position that had previously been described that summer, because he had a science degree. They assured him he would be properly trained for the specific duties of the position they were about the place him in—they needed men. Things were developing fast in Europe, which meant that the letters from the USCSC started becoming more and more persistent here in the United States. John then decided the time had come to become more actively involved in the war effort, so he accepted the position. A date was set to arrive at Chanute Field, Illinois. This meant a crucial change in career plans and he immediately withdrew from the University of Texas.

John became involved in teaching duties within the United States Army Air Corps Technical Training Command in September 1941, before the U.S. had entered the war. Developments were happening fast with the Japanese military and on December 7, 1941, Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. 

After proper training at Chanute Field, he was assigned to the newly-opened Sheppard Field, Texas, to assume his teaching duties. Six month later, he was transferred to another newly-opened technical training command school, Amarillo Field, Texas, and was promoted to a supervisor position in the aircraft propeller mechanics department. By this time the US had been  involved in hostilities for six months. John and his many fellow instructors had eight hour shifts in the school and taught 5 to 6 classes a day with thirty men in each class. His students took this class for 2 weeks and would rotate with new students every two weeks for 18 months. In total, Mr. Belew taught over 1,000 soldiers how to maintain propellers. Their job was to keep the propellers in perfect operating order because the blades pulled the entire plane through the air. If problems arose in flight, soldiers could not get out of the plane and fix them; the lives of soldiers on the plane depended on the perfection of the propellers.

“15 million uniformed individuals participated in this war. World War II was unique in that we all participated, both civilian and military. People came together under such difficult circumstances with this shared experience and it encouraged people to have a commitment to the war effort.  Women started becoming instructors and they were just as good as, if not better than, the men,” remarked Mr. Belew. At this point, he decided to change from civilian to military status. Eventually he became an active aircraft propeller specialist in the 316th Troop Carrier Squadron. 

While the war was in progress, in September 1943, John’s childhood neighbor, Ruth, wanted to “seek her fortune,” so first she majored in modern dance at UT Austin and earned a bachelor’s degree. John got a leave to go to his sister’s wedding as Ruth was then planning to leave to New York to study with the Humphrey-Weidman studio/dance group after learning about it at UT Austin. Ruth’s parents were not happy about her plans to leave Texas.  Some unaccompanied women rode Pullman class if they could afford it. The Pullman ticket was expensive, and her parents were not going to pay for that.   John and Ruth’s mutual friend, Doris, played the role of “matchmaker,” and said “I can go to your parents and suggest that Ruth travel on the cheaper train ticket if she has someone riding with her.  That way John and Ruth will sit together on the  coach car of the train using a relatively inexpensive ticket instead of the Pullman ticket.” Her parents did not want her to “seek her fortune” in New York and did not want to contribute to the expensive Pullman ticket. Her parents finally agreed and allowed Ruth to be accompanied by John on the trip up there. All of their life, John had lived down the street from Ruth and her parents felt more secure knowing their daughter would not be traveling such a long distance alone.

The train ride took two nights and three days; John and Ruth “talked and talked and talked.” After John had to go his way and Ruth had to go to New York, they were committed to communicating with each other through hand-written letters for the foreseeable future. Letters became all-important.  Later, after they had married and John was overseas with the Army Air Corps, Ruth sent him a letter every day.  He was one of the few at daily mail call to receive something each time.

Upon arrival in New York, Ruth had chosen to stay in a secure women’s-only residence called the “Three Arts Club” that would take care of her and many other women. “It was tough on women going to work in the 1940s due to discrimination,” said Dr. Belew. As soon as she arrived, Ruth began working with the New York Public Library, a very prestigious institution in New York, located on 42nd Street. John attended Ruth’s first performance in New York at the Humphrey-Weidman studio on 10th street. 

After a few weeks of employment with the New York Public Library, while still studying with the  Humphrey-Weidman group, Ruth secured permanent employment with  the YWCA in Passaic, New Jersey, a national group promoting equality amongst race and gender that catered to everybody of all nationalities. She was responsible for teaching all of the dance classes.

Six months later, John went overseas to Kahuka Point, Oahu, Hawaii in his capacity with the Army Air Corps. John had had positive experiences with the YMCA in Waco, as that was where he learned to swim. The YMCA in Passaic, New Jersey had a hostel service that provided a place for him to sleep when visiting Ruth.  So, it was natural that he would seek out the YMCA in Honolulu.  He spent a great deal of his free time at the Honolulu YMCA, especially because it was one of the few places on the island where he could find fresh milk.  He had grown tired of the powdered milk and eggs the Army Air Corps had provided. John believes that the YMCA/YWCA had a profound and significant impact on not only his life, but on Ruth’s life as well. 

In late 1943, John asked Ruth to marry him. Immediately, they set priorities together and wrote them down in a black notebook, and planned to  accomplish them once the war was over. The first on their list was that they were both going to complete graduate degrees, as well as buy  The Encyclopedia Britannica.

They later married on June 3, 1944, in Manhattan, New York at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration with a small group of 15 or 20 people in attendance. They obviously had to appear together at their wedding, but the only problem was that John was in North Carolina while Ruth was in New York. They managed to get to City Hall on Friday, June 2 in order to obtain a license together before 5:00pm. John traveled from North Carolina to New York City because he was granted permission by his superior to attend his wedding. His pass lasted three days, from Saturday to Monday. He was not missing any duty but had to leave late on Thursday in order to arrive in New York on Friday. 

It is notable that Mr. Belew has not missed an election since World War II, and strongly believes in his right to vote. He first voted on a troop ship, the U.S.S. Grant, a dual-purpose ship bringing Japanese prisoners of war to the U.S. and U.S. troops to the Pacific.  On election day, 1944, all Americans aboard the U.S.S. Grant were given the opportunity to vote, and John Belew cast his first vote that day.

Ruth and John did not let the chaos of their time interfere with their goals. The black notebook John and Ruth made together represented not only their commitment towards loving each other, but their shared aspirations--the main goal being that they both valued higher education. The Encyclopedia Britannica is what they used to enrich themselves in learning more about the world around them.

After the war, Dr. Belew became a faculty member at Baylor University, and eventually became  Dean of Arts and Sciences and later, Provost. His wife taught stage movement in the Baylor Theater. Together they devoted their lives to higher education and happily fulfilled their goals with the Encyclopedia and their education. 

Together, they have two children, Jay Belew, a professional archeologist, and Janet Belew Dizinno, former Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at St. Mary’s University. Janet studied social psychology and has been involved in higher education since 1982. Even John’s grandchildren have gone on to pursue opportunities in higher education. In the Belew family, higher education has always been upheld as an important vehicle for fulfilling one’s obligation to society. 

It was important for two love birds like John and Ruth not to forget their values that drew them together in the first place. Even though they faced a lot, they managed to stay loyal to each other and their American ideals, living a meaningful seventy years happily together.

Marisol Moreno is majoring in Psychology with a minor in Sociology at St. Mary’s University. While Marisol is originally from small town Abilene, Texas she has resided in San Antonio for roughly 10 years and calls this city home. Marisol intends to go to graduate school to study Industrial-Organizational Psychology.

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