Haunted by a long-ago love

World War II vet kept painful secret from a special girl

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Charlie Franza often shot his subjects from afar.

A U.S. Army Air Forces veteran, Franza, who grew up in Philadelphia, enlisted in 1942 and served as a photo lab technician at Mitchel Air Force Base in Hempstead. He guarded highly sensitive information and was sworn to secrecy.

“I enjoyed taking photographs my whole life,” said Franza, who’s now 94. Most of the photos that hang on the walls of his East Meadow home are his. “I spent some time in the darkroom on base,” he recalled. “I spent days on my desk, typing away. And I would take pictures in my free time.”

Franza laid out a series of photos on his dining room table: shots of his four sons, Robert, George, Theodore and David, flexing their biceps at the beach in 1949; a Christmas photo of his late wife, Nettie, surrounded by the boys; shots of his cat, Big Ben, who kept him company after Nettie died; and photos of the first woman to capture Franza’s heart, Mary Sutherland.

A secret hidden for decades

“I used to get myself in trouble when I was 17,” Franza laughed. “My mother and father waited up for me until 2 in the morning because I was always dancing with girls. My father even caught me one morning and told me he was worried that I’d end up with a floozy!”

But Sutherland was different. “My name is Mary, and they tell me your name is Charlie,” is how Franza remembers her introducing herself to him in 1942. From his desk at Mitchel Field, he watched her walk back and forth from room to room every day. “She didn’t want to look like she was flirting,” he laughed. “She waited for me to ask her what her name was. And I remember thinking she was cute.”

After taking Sutherland out for an ice cream soda, Franza asked her on a proper date. He stuffed $300 in his wallet — his military savings — and took her to a restaurant in New York City. Franza, whose family had emigrated from Sicily, Italy, discovered that Sutherland was Italian-American as well.

He wore his uniform on the date, and at the restaurant, he and Sutherland attracted the attention of a group sitting behind them, who were welcoming a soldier home. Sutherland soon realized that the soldier was a distant relative — and his family picked up their tab, too.

Later, Franza and Sutherland took the train to Long Island, and he drove her to her home in Hempstead and walked her to the door. He lingered as she leaned against the house, whispering about their evening.

“I’ll never forget this moment,” Franza recalled. “She placed her hands to her side, and I leaned down and kissed her. I looked at her and I thought, ‘I think I want her to be my wife.’” The pair soon became inseparable. His parents approved of her, and after they dated for two years, Franza thought about starting a future with Sutherland.

But one day, as he was writing a letter to his family, who lived in Philadelphia, in a locker room at Mitchel Field, he overheard two soldiers talking about starting families. “One of them found out that he was sterile,” Franza said. “He couldn’t have any children. And that got me thinking.”

Out of curiosity, Franza made an appointment with a doctor on the base. He found out that he was unable to father children, because he had contracted the mumps three times as a child. “I was devastated,” he said.

Confused and worried, he visited his family, and revealed the diagnosis to his father, who suggested that he share the news with Sutherland. “She’d hate me,” Franza remembers replying.

He could not fathom the idea of asking Sutherland to give up the experience of having children. He imagined her girlfriends calling her with news of their pregnancies, while Sutherland would never share news of her own. He agonized, and ultimately made a decision: He would let her go.

Because Franza had dropped out of high school, he spent nights studying chemistry and math to earn a high school diploma. He was promoted to sergeant, and conducted drills and exercises during the day. “I had to make Mary believe that I didn’t have time for her anymore,” he said. “She asked me to do things with her, and I gave her excuses until finally she realized that I didn’t want to continue with the relationship.”

And it ended, although he often thought about their time together. “It hurt sometimes to think about how I hurt her without any explanation,” he said. In late 1945, as World War II came to an end, he signed up to work at a local Army Air Forces hospital. He cared for 18 patients, and helped nurses and doctors with additional chores.

“One day, I saw a nurse walk by and I said, ‘Holy mackerel!’” he laughed. “She was beautiful. Every time she walked by, I ate my heart out.”

Her name was Nettie, and she would become his wife. But he never stopped thinking about Sutherland. The secret that kept them apart would resurface more than 60 years later.

Next week, Part Two.