The greatest love story ever told

Well, maybe it is not the greatest love story ever told, but it is up there. With Valentine’s Day upon us, it is an amazing tale of love at first sight. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I have a personal bias in sharing it as I am a product of the story’s characters.

The story involves a U.S. Navy lieutenant by the name of Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., who would later become its youngest four-star admiral and its 19th chief of Naval Operations (1970-1974).

Zumwalt was on the destroyer USS Robinson, operating in the South China Sea, in September 1945. Japan had surrendered and Robinson had just captured a Japanese LST – the HIJMS Ataka. With 200 Japanese soldiers onboard her, Zumwalt – assisted by 10 of Robinson’s sailors – became the captured vessel’s prize crew. They were ordered to sail the ship up the Yangtze River to Shanghai to start disarming the Japanese. Flying the U.S. flag, Ataka became the first American ship to enter the port after the war.

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In the weeks that followed, other U.S. ships entered Shanghai. Soon afterward, three of Zumwalt’s U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) classmates, serving on those other ships, approached him. They had received an invitation to a Russian home for dinner. They learned there would be four single Russian girls in attendance, and the three needed a fourth to join them. Having been at sea for two years, Zumwalt quickly accepted the invite.

On Oct. 1, 1945, the four bachelors entered the Russian home. Zumwalt’s entire story of capturing Ataka, sailing it up the Yangtze, encountering the challenges they did and then attending this dinner party were all shared in a 70-page letter he wrote his father dated Nov. 10, 1945.

In that lengthy missive, Zumwalt described how, after his arrival, the four Russian girls entered the room, escorted by the dinner host and his wife. He wrote of the four:

“The first one was a gorgeous blonde, lithe and well-formed with a lovely soft complexion. … The second one entered and my heart stood still. Here was a girl I shall never be able to describe completely. Tall and well-poised, she was smiling a smile of such radiance that the very room seemed suddenly transformed as though a fairy waving a brilliant wand had just entered the room. I never saw the remaining two girls.”

Interestingly, the second girl, obviously feeling a mutual attraction for Zumwalt, motioned for him to take the seat next to her at the dinner table. While the girl spoke strained and broken English, Zumwalt had made an effort in the weeks before the dinner party to learn very limited Russian. They were able to communicate some but also were helped by one of the other three girls who was bilingual.

By dinner’s end, Zumwalt had learned his dinner partner’s name was “Mouza,” 23. Mouza was born of a Russian mother and French father who had escaped the Russian communists to settle in Harbin, Manchuria. She had journeyed to Shanghai to seek cancer treatment for her dying mother. After her mother died, she was unable to return to Harbin – never seeing her father again.

Infatuated by Mouza’s beauty, Zumwalt asked her if he could come back the next day to have her teach him Russian. She readily agreed, and he returned for six days in a row to learn. On Oct. 7, just days after meeting Mouza, Zumwalt proposed.

Zumwalt was a romantic, and in asking for her hand in marriage, he did not make an outright proposal. He quoted the opening line from the 16th-century English poet Christoper Marlowe, “Come live with me and be my love and we will all the treasures prove.” However, as Mouza’s understanding of English was limited, she lifted her hand to slap Zumwalt, unsure whether he was proposing or making a proposition. He immediately clarified his intention was the former – to which she readily agreed.

Despite only knowing each other for three weeks, they were married on Oct. 22. Zumwalt explained that the reason it took two additional weeks to tie the knot was, back then, one had to get his commanding officer’s permission to marry. As Zumwalt’s CO had been divorced twice, he initially tried to talk him out of it before finally giving his permission.

The two underwent three marriage ceremonies – one in the Russian Church, one at the U.S. consulate’s office and one at a U.S. church. Mouza would jokingly tell people it would take three divorces for Zumwalt to leave her!

The product of their marriage was four children – two older boys and two younger girls. Three of the four of us lived (my older brother died in 1988 of Agent Orange-related cancers from his service as a swift boat commander in Vietnam) to see our parents celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in 1995.

Well-known for his sense of humor, my father – at this wedding anniversary celebration – was asked if he had ever made a mistake. Affirmatively nodding his head, he pointed at me for having served in the U.S. Marine Corps!

In the early morning hours of a new millennium, after 54 years of marriage, Zumwalt passed away on Jan. 2, 2000 – the victim of another environmental cancer for having served his country – mesothelioma.

Mouza, having lost the love of her life, passed away five years later, in 2005. Both are buried at the USNA cemetery along the Severn River.

In 2016, the U.S. Navy commissioned its first stealth destroyer – the USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000). My sisters and I were fortunate enough to ride the ship as she sailed from Norfolk, Virginia, to Baltimore, Maryland, for her commissioning ceremony. The journey took the ship up the Severn River.

The USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000)

Unbeknownst to us ahead of time, a brief event was held that brought a tear to an old Marine’s eye. The ship came to a stop within view of the USNA cemetery. Members of the crew marched out onto the main deck in dress uniforms to stand at attention along the port side, rendering honors to my parents.

As they did so, I could not forget what my father had often said about my mother – i.e., that she was a big part of the reason for his success – having made the many sacrifices she did for the man she loved.

I still find it incredible not only that these two only knew each other for three weeks by the time they married but that they did so while unable to communicate clearly due to their differing cultural backgrounds. Theirs was truly an amazing love story – one proving love is an international language!

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This article was originally published by the WND News Center.

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