Those few days on Iwo Jima left a lifetime mark on Jacob Jennings. Many who had similar wartime experiences were horribly traumatized and they suffered in one form or another for the rest of their lives as well. During our less-than four years of involvement in World War II, over a third (37.5%) of the approximately 800,000 American soldiers that were engaged in direct combat ultimately received a permanent discharge due to the severity of their psychological issues stemming from the trauma suffered in their combat experiences.
Corporal Jennings dealt with the horror of the trauma he suffered, and mitigated the worst of it, in healthy and productive ways. Aside from the many hours he spent alone, alternating between writing and reading… and praying, one of the best coping choices he made involved other people. After the war, Jennings reached out to help and serve others.
In 1950, he created a non-profit organization that would provide scholarships to disabled military veterans from in and around the central part of the state of Maryland where he was born and where he lived at the time. His charity helped war vets go to college who otherwise would have had fewer employment opportunities due to their wartime injuries and PTSD-related limitations. Following many of the principles he learned from his father and grandmother, he created a few very vivid dreams and used the words in his books – his many journals – to pursue those dreams to their realization.
Creating the Chesapeake Higher Education Program was certainly not Jacob Jennings’ only dream, nor his first dream, he brought to fruition. By 1947, two years following the end of the war, he was running his own automatic car wash; the first in the state. In 1955, Jennings was one of the original members of the newly formed Automatic Car Wash Association. And by that time, at the age of 33, he owned six automatic car wash outlets (3 in Maryland, 1 in Washington, DC, and 2 in northern Virginia) and was well on his way to being independently wealthy.
Jennings used his money and his influence as a dynamic and successful business man to fund and fundraise for his favorite charity (the one he created), which he began referring to as CHEP. The goodwill and positive PR gained by what he was doing for veterans, many of whom became managers of his car washes as well as trusted employees of his restaurants and his property management company, made Jennings even more wealthy. This, in turn, resulted in his giving even more away.
But before all the wealth showed up in his life, he was just a “regular” guy. He didn’t inherit his wealth. He was just a guy who knew how to dream and how to write. In fact, his writing is how he met his wife.
On February 22, 1945, on the third day of the battle of Iwo Jima, Jennings had witnessed the worst trauma of his life when fellow machine-gunner Dale McDonald was killed horribly only inches from him. On the morning of their landing on the little island, Jennings had promised Private McDonald that, if McDonald perished, he would make sure his “Loved One” letter got to his fiancé, Marie Gracier; a letter that he had written to her that would be sent in the event of his death. Jennings kept his promise.
In sending PFC McDonald’s letter, Jacob included a letter of his own to Marie. Of course Marie was devastated. But as terrible and painful as her loss was, she had prepared herself ahead of time as best she could. She had accepted that the worst could happen. In fact, unbeknownst to Private McDonald, Marie refused to consider herself to be his fiancé; not until he returned home, safe and sound. She told no one about this because she knew how cynical and shallow such a mindset could look. We all have ways of taking the edge off pain in our lives, even preemptively, and this was one of her ways.
That said, by the time she received the envelope containing both letters, she had known of Private McDonald’s death for about fourteen weeks. Jacob had taken two weeks just to write – and rewrite – his letter to her. Dale McDonald was a good guy; brave, honest, trustworthy, someone that anyone would be honored to go into battle with. Corporal Jennings was honored to have fought with him and he said so eloquently. He went to great detail in outlining McDonald’s virtues. He closed with an apology for the length of his letter, noting that it was much longer than the letter it came with, saying that she deserved to hear some things that Dale McDonald – in his humility – would never say on his own about himself.
Marie was deeply touched by both letters. Five or six months went by. Marie couldn’t get Jacob out of her thoughts. Not that she was trying. In his touching letter to her, he had written so many things; touching and carefully-chosen words of wisdom that truly helped her put her loss into perspective. Finally, she decided to write back to him. She felt compelled to thank him for what he had written.
She knew the city the corporal came from because he had mentioned it in passing in his letter. She also knew his father owned a dry cleaning business in Maryland. She looked up the address from a phone book at the library and sent Jacob Jennings a six page thank you letter. She told him about her life and how his words – though he didn’t know her at all – helped to put more than just her recent loss into perspective.
Her letter arrived at his father’s dry cleaning business on the only day of the week Jacob worked there. He was speechless. That very day he was putting the finishing touches in a follow up letter to Marie; a friendly “hello” to enquire as to how she was doing. Now, in light of her unexpected correspondence, he had much more to say.
This exchange was followed by a flurry of many more letters between them. The prolific letter writing didn’t stop until they were married, but the written expressions of love and devotion between them continued.
Over the years, the couple exchanged thousands of sweet cards and notes and poems and short love letters; some of them later to be on display at their fiftieth wedding anniversary; three of them read aloud by their grand-daughter, Marie, obviously her cherished grandma’s namesake.