[Note: When we three Lamplugh siblings gathered at Judy’s home to remember our late mother, Elsie Elizabeth (“Betts”) Lamplugh, a couple of years ago, Judy had a surprise for us: She had retrieved, and then had reproduced, a wedding picture of Betts and her new husband, Benjamin (“Ben”) Leroy Lamplugh, who were married in Wilmington, Delaware, on January 12, 1943. That photograph quickly earned a permanent spot on the nightstand next to my side of the bed in our home.
Recently, as I began thinking about a blog series on my father (for Part I, go here), I couldn’t get that photo out of my mind. First, Betts didn’t look like the version of herself I was familiar with after my research for the posts covering her life from her birth in 1923 through her marriage twenty years later. Her hairstyle, even her facial features, didn’t seem familiar. And yet, this was her wedding picture, so of course she wished to create a memorable impression–and, obviously, she did!
And then there was Ben. He was almost twenty-two when he married, but didn’t look it. Nattily turned out in his U.S. Army uniform, with paratrooper badge attached below his lapel, Ben apparently was trying to project the strength of character and determination required of an American soldier training for the 82nd Airborne, but he seems very young. Moreover, looking at the portrait more than seventy-five years later, there may be more to see.]
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Sources about Betts are more plentiful than those about Ben. Consequently, I’ve wondered what I could say about him to balance the more detailed treatment his bride received in this blog. What I plan to offer is a reflection on these two young Americans, who married despite the fact that Ben was already launched on his military training; the United States had been at war with Japan and Germany for a year; and, as of January 1943, the future of that conflict, and Ben’s future for that matter, was cloudy at best, bleak at worst. (Of course, Betts and Ben were certainly not the only people in their generation who decided to marry during wartime, but they were the ones who counted, at least as far as my siblings and I were concerned!)
Here’s where it gets tricky: I hope to present Ben, Betts, and their lives together, fairly. This means that, in view of the wealth of material Betts left behind, and the paucity of information Ben bequeathed us, the emphasis will be on offering an even-handed view of the couple. I’ll insert links to some of the “Betts” posts to supplement my generalizations about her, and I’ll present as much specific information about Ben as I can, especially for his early years, without links to sources, except for Betts’ memoirs—because there are few.
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The first thing I noticed in the photograph was their eyes. Betts projects a certain serenity, a conviction that things have worked out so far and will continue to do so. Ben, on the other hand, without quite flashing a “deer in the headlights” stare, doesn’t seem as sure of the future as his bride. Betts manages a confident smile, but Ben, not so much. It’s not that he looks alarmed; rather, he doesn’t project certainty about the future—or contentment with the past–that Betts does. And there are reasons that might explain the differences.
First, Betts’ apparent serenity. She had grown up amid a large, relatively stable family, in a house at 50 Choate Street, in the small northern Delaware town of Newark. Born on January 8, 1923, Betts was the second of six children of Isabelle and Isaac L. (“Ike”) Knighton. A child of the Great Depression era, Betts always knew that her father had a series of steady jobs and helpful relatives, and that even if family finances were tough, the Knighton children received what they needed.
Moreover, as a youngster, Betts suffered a bout of rheumatic fever that led to heart problems and nearly a dozen years when her physical activities were closely monitored by her family physician and by her parents. Consequently, her girlhood was far from typical. While her friends were encouraged to participate in various activities, from sports to dancing (not to mention dating!), Betts was not. Then, in 1940, after she graduated from Newark High School, Betts was on her own. She got a job and was determined to catch up with her girlfriends; although she was not interested in sports, Betts was interested in dating and dancing.
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Ben Lamplugh was born on January 20, 1921, to Samuel Leroy Lamplugh, a truck driver, and Mary Dutton Lamplugh. Although his birth certificate records Ben as the couple’s fifth child, only two older siblings were alive at his birth, a brother, Bill, and a sister, Ethel. His father Leroy left his family when Ben was an infant. Ben’s mother realized that she could not support three children by herself, so she farmed out Bill and Ethel to relatives, keeping the infant Ben (or Bennie) with her.
Ben grew up not knowing his own father, which was hard for him. Betts said that, soon after she and Ben married, they were on Market Street in Wilmington, Delaware, and came abreast of people standing in line outside a movie theater. Ben asked Betts to wait for him, then began to talk to a man in the line. When he returned, Ben told Betts that he had thought the man might have been his father Leroy, but he’d been mistaken. Eventually, though, Ben must have found his father, because Betts said Leroy visited a couple of times after the war, when the Lamplughs lived in Middle River, Maryland.
Mary Lamplugh eventually married Noble Cahall, a farmer in downstate Harrington, Delaware, who brought a passel of his own kids to the marriage—I remember at least three, and Ben himself later recalled five or six step-siblings. My sister Judy thinks that Ben really liked his stepdad; my brother Rick, on the other hand, believes that Ben left home at about the age of 15 and moved in with his brother Bill and Bill’s wife Maxine, on a farm in the Newark area. If that is true, then it might have been tough for Ben living with all those Cahalls, or perhaps Ben simply missed his big brother. (Note: I believe that Ben’s stepfather, Noble Cahall, eventually visited us at least once when we lived in Middle River.)
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Once Betts set out to reclaim her childhood and teen years after graduating from high school, the world of Newark was her oyster. She worked at the Continental Diamond Fiber Company, where her father also was employed; among her co-workers was Maxine Lamplugh, Bill Lamplugh’s wife.
Meanwhile, Betts met a boy, J.B., newly arrived from Iowa to join his father in Delaware, and she also occasionally dated young men from the University of Delaware, located in her hometown of Newark. Betts agreed to visit Bill and Maxine’s home near Newark, where she met Bill’s redheaded brother Ben, who evidently was smitten with her free spirit.
When he got leave from the Maryland National Guard, Ben traveled to Newark, making sure to try to arrange a date with Betts, but he was not always successful. After all, Betts had a fulltime job at the fiber mill and she also enjoyed dating, which meant that she was not always “available” when Ben came calling. In fact, it soon became clear to Betts, and probably to Ben and some University of Delaware students, that J.B. from Iowa had won her heart.
By late 1941, Betts and J.B. had decided to marry early in 1942. Then, on December 7, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Like lots of young American males, J.B. decided to enlist, joining the Marines in February 1942, which meant that his marriage to Betts was put on indefinite hold.
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We are still not certain if Ben Lamplugh graduated from high school. I grew up thinking that he was a high school dropout, while my brother Rick believes that Ben might have graduated from high school around 1938. Then there’s the family story of the couple who offered to pay for Ben to go with their son to the Virginia Military Institute, in Lexington, which suggests that he was a high school graduate, but Ben declined the offer.
If Ben had graduated from high school, his unwillingness to accept the opportunity to attend VMI might have meant that he didn’t think he was “college material,” or that he did not like the idea of attending a military school. Yet, if the offer had been made to Ben earlier, perhaps during his junior year in high school, and he turned it down and subsequently decided to drop out of school, then the anecdote at least suggests that his friend’s parents believed Ben was bright enough to do college work.
Ben apparently left the Cahall farm in lower Delaware in his teens, and moved north. By the time Betts met Ben at his brother Bill’s home in the summer of 1940, Ben was in the Maryland National Guard, stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland. After perhaps a few dates with Betts that summer, Ben learned that she was enamored of J.B. So, Ben presumably turned elsewhere for female companionship, at least for a while.
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Another explanation for the serene expression Betts projects in her wedding photo is that this was “not her first rodeo” as a bride-to-be: she had been engaged to J.B., but his decision to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor frustrated her desire to become his wife, at least temporarily. Then, however, fate stepped in.
Betts and J.B. carried on a long-distance argument over reports he’d heard that Betts had been dating young men in Newark after she had become engaged to him. To J.B., those rumors suggested that Betts was “cheating” on him while he was fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific. To Betts, J.B.’s response to the rumors suggested that J.B. didn’t trust her. Consequently, Betts, who had a temper, broke off the engagement, sending J.B.’s ring, and other wartime memorabilia, back to his mother in Iowa.
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Once Betts broke off her engagement to J.B., she turned to those young men she had dated before she and J.B. had become an item. Over the next few months, she was increasingly drawn to Ben Lamplugh. (In filling out a questionnaire for her grandchildren decades later, Betts made two revealing statements: she regarded Ben as a gentleman, very quiet, much like her father, Ike Knighton; and Ben had told her that he liked her because she was quiet, though she added, “little did he know how much I would change.” Both those descriptions would prove true in the years ahead.)
Ben knew he had not been Betts’s first choice for a husband, but she had agreed to marry him, which obviously overruled any hesitation on his part. By late 1942, Ben and Betts were engaged. They were married in Wilmington, on January 12, 1943, a date they chose because it fell between their respective January birthdays. Yet, they both still had a war in front of them. . . .
End of Part II
Copyright 2019 George Lamplugh
Next: Ben: An American Dad, 1921-1986, Part III, World War II
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: