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A big thanks -- 55 years later
Letter of comfort spurs Web search for brother's pal

At the end of World War II, the young Utah soldier struggled to express his feelings for the friend who had been killed in combat and to comfort the man's family.

Pfc. Wendell W. Iverson had been in battle himself, there on northern Luzon, Philippine Islands. Now that he had a chance, he wrote a touching letter to the family of his buddy, James Longley."I wasn't with him when he got killed but from what I can find out he was a real hero, a soldier you and everyone can be proud of," wrote Iverson, a Tooele resident who was drafted in 1944.

"James thought the world of you folks, and his sis Betty. He often told me about all of you and showed me pictures he had, so I feel I know you even if I have never met you. James was a swell guy that everyone that got acquainted with liked very much."

Iverson wrote that in July 1945. Today, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, the soldier and his wife really are getting to know Longley's "sis Betty."

Longley was from Magazine, Ark. He and Iverson went through basic training together in Texas. En route to the Pacific, they were delayed for a time in California, where they visited Longley's uncle in San Francisco.

"We shipped over together," Iverson said. When they reached the Philippines, however, they were assigned to separate companies. Both went through intense combat on Luzon.

As described at the time by Longley's commander, Lt. Bernard G. Shepherd, his infantry company had pulled back 300 yards from a position it occupied.

"The Japanese started shelling us again. One of their mortar shells landed only a few feet from James, causing serious wounds," Shepherd wrote. Longley was taken to a battlefield aid station but "in spite of all efforts to save his life, he died within a few hours."

Iverson did his best to ease the pain of the Longley family. In his letter, he included a photograph of the cemetery where Longley was buried.

"You will see him again in the next world," he wrote. "I know you will and the next life is much more beautiful than this, so you do have something to look forward to."

He did not hear from Longley's family back then. After the war, he worked as a meat cutter and later sold meat to a packing company.

"Then I was in the insurance business. I had a real estate business," he added during an interview at the Holladay-area home he shares with his wife, Eda. He retired at age 65, nearly 15 years ago.

Last April, the Iversons were surprised to get a telephone call from a man who inquired if Wendell Iverson had been in the Philippines during World War II. Yes, said Eda Iverson. Did he know James Longley? Again, the answer was yes.

The caller exclaimed, "My mother-in-law is going to be so happy that she found Wendell Iverson."

The man's mother-in-law was the "sis Betty" of Iverson's letter, the sister of James Longley. Now Betty L. Reather of Fort Smith, Ark., she had often taken out the letter and wondered if she could contact Iverson and talk to him about her brother.

About three years ago she tried unsuccessfully to find him. Then the son-in-law, Paul Herman Travis of Fort Smith, Ark., tried.

He managed to use the Internet to locate Iverson. Shortly after that first call, Betty Reather herself called.

"I was so excited, I could hardly sleep that night," Reather told the Deseret News in a telephone interview. "I almost thought I that I had touched my brother again. I was only 13 when he was killed."

The death took a heavy toll on the family, she said. Her parents seemed to age 20 years when it happened.

Reather has treasured the letter since 1945. She would take it out from time to time and read it. However, because Iverson was overseas when the letter was written, it did not carry a return address and she wasn't sure of the spelling of the last name.

"I kept the letter and dreamed that maybe someday I would get to meet him," she said.

Although Wendell Iverson has had a stroke that can make talking laborious, they speak on the telephone and correspond by letter. "As time goes on he's remembered more and more about my brother," she said.

Asked if it was a surprise to hear from her after more than half a century, Iverson said, "Boy, it sure was. I had forgotten about the whole thing until she reminded us."

Iverson performed a special service for his friend. As a member of The Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints, he went through baptismal rites for Longley.

He asked Longley's sister if she would allow the ceremony. "She said I could have permission but she didn't see the necessity. But I have done it," he said.

Both families are delighted with the new friendship they are forging. Asked how he feels about the prospects of someday meeting "sis Betty," Iverson replied, "Oh, great!"

Reather is just as excited. "It was wonderful to get in touch with someone who knew him personally."