Veteran recalls wartime romance

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Veteran recalls wartime romance

BY LAURA MARBLE<br>THE ISLAND PACKET<br>
Published Sunday, November 11, 2001 in The Island Packet  |  622 Words  |  /IslandPacket/news/local

In high school, Ed Russell was the guy who drew great cartoons. His gawky, big-eyed, adolescent character, named Itchie, behaved boldly when Russell felt shy. '
Mary Jane Walton, a popular student at Russell's high school in Teaneck, N.J., loved that bright-eyed character.'
"I know you," she said to Russell one winter day in 1943. "You draw those wonderful cartoons." '
The shy high school senior responded with Itchie-like boldness.'
"For that," he promised, "I'm going to marry you."'
Russell had only one date with Itchie's admirer. Before he had time for a second one, he joined the Navy. '
Far off in the waters of the South Pacific, though, Russell planned his campaign to woo Mary Jane. He would rely on support from the U.S. Postal Service, and -- of course -- from Itchie.'
Ed and Mary Jane Russell live in Moss Creek now, near Bluffton. Their creative courtship is featured in a newly released book by CNN's Larry King, titled "Love Stories of World War II."'
The Russells were interviewed Thursday for a segment about King's book for NBC's morning news program "Today." The segment is scheduled to run Monday, when many will honor Veterans Day.'
WOOING A WIFE'
Itchie helped Russell win the former Mary Jane Walton's heart, or so Russell says. His high school sweetheart was so beautiful that she eventually became a high-fashion model for Harper's Bazaar. She was never without admirers.'
"She fell in love with Itchie," Russell said. "That's what I wanted her to do. It's what I assumed she'd do -- what I hoped she'd do."'
Russell joined the Navy on May 4, 1943. During his 20 months overseas, he filled Mary Jane Walton's mailbox with unique letters -- they were covered with Itchie. '
Sometimes Itchie dressed as a sailor. Sometimes he piloted an authentic-looking dive bomber. Once he morphed into a favorite Disney character, Jiminy Cricket.'
"Itchie softened all the blunt edges of adolescence," Mary Jane Russell said, remembering her affection for the sweet, hand-drawn guy. '
"I felt at ease relating to Itchie," she said. "I fell in love with the messenger."'
DEALING WITH WAR'
Itchie kept on grinning while Russell witnessed war. On June 21, 1945, a Japanese fighter plane flew into Russell's ship while he watched from a deck. It was a kamikaze attack. The ship burned for more than 15 hours, and 37 people died.'
In November, Russell was told he could go home. He let Itchie -- drawn atop a graceful curve labeled "M.J.'s knee" -- announce the news. '
"Dear Mary Jane," Itchie said. "This is Itchie talking and we've got a serious problem. Eddie is coming home, and you have fallen in love with me. What are we going to do about Eddie?"'
Russell realized that Mary Jane might have a boyfriend back home. She did not, and the two married on Dec. 21, 1946.'
Russell took a job in advertising and eventually became president of Doyle Dane Bernbach International. '
In 1999, he gathered old Itchie letters and Navy documents and made a World War II memorabilia booklet for his three sons. A war buddy forwarded an e-mail message about Larry King's upcoming book, and Russell sent in his ready-made submission.'
Itchie still surfaces occasionally, Russell said, as an old man with Itchie-like facial features, or as a silly face drawn on a fibrous walnut shell. He turns up on anniversaries and birthdays, too, or whenever a homemade card is called for. '
"Itchie still helps me out," Russell said.'