Love and War: WWII veteran and his bride celebrate 72 years of marriage
Published 7:00 am Saturday, February 20, 2016
The key to Clayton and Lillian Diggs’ successful 72-year marriage is simple.
“What a great constitution I have,” 93-year-old Clayton said with a mischievous smile.
With just one look at the couple people realize the love and admiration they have for each other.
The New Orleans natives grew up in the same neighborhood and met when they were teenagers.
“She kept hounding me,” Clayton said.
Lillian, now 90, said he was just another skinny boy, which Clayton doesn’t deny.
“I had to stand in two places to make one shadow,” he said.
However, before the couple could marry, Clayton enlisted in the United States Navy in 1942 to fight in World War II, which for America began the day Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941.
He trained in San Diego, California at the machinist mate school and said he never failed a test in the Navy.
After training, Clayton boarded the USS Honolulu, where he stayed throughout the duration of the war.
“We earned eight battle stars,” he said. “The ship took three torpedoes. It’s strange, but you can’t be afraid. You don’t have to be scared, but that’s me.”
When he first boarded the ship, Clayton was placed on the deck force. He spent a year wearing five-inch shell gloves up to his shoulder.
“When they fired the guns over our heads on the Japanese we would catch the shells so they wouldn’t pile up under the mount,” he said. “The worst part was when the gun wouldn’t fire. If it didn’t fire twice, they took it out and I got to carry it to the side and throw it overboard.”
After that, Clayton was moved to the fire room, a hazardous place, but it’s where he said he wanted to be in the first place. The men in the fire rooms created the steam to operate the ship, he said.
Clayton lost many friends while aboard the USS Honolulu.
“There was a young kid I used to see all the time and I would say he was too young and ought to be home going to the theater with his girlfriend,” he said. “One day, I was in the shower and there was a loud boom and the ship laid on its side. A flame had dropped right in that kid’s compartment.”
During the war, both Clayton and Lillian were engaged to other people.
However, Clayton’s engagement ended after he received a Dear John letter and Lillian said she decided she didn’t want to marry her fiancé.
“When I came home on leave, she tripped me,” he said. “I asked her dad if I could marry her and he said, ‘Yeah, thank God,’ because she was one of 13 children. But I got the best of the pick. She could cook and sew.”
Lillian said Clayton was a lot of fun and he liked to dance.
The couple was married on Jan. 20, 1945, and when the war ended, Lillian met his bus at the station.
They belonged to a dance club and won top prize, a bottle of champagne, five years in a row.
The couple has three children, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Clayton remained in the Navy until he retired in 1967. He was senior chief at the Naval Air Station in New York at the time.
After they were married, Clayton promised his wife he would buy her a brick home and 25 years ago he bought her one in Picayune.
Family friend Mary Ann Carlson said she has witnessed how much they truly love one another.
“We go to lunch and I take them shopping and to doctor visits,” she said. “He never ceases to touch her, hold her hand or bend over and give her a kiss. He is very attentive to her. He also cooks, cleans and washes clothes.”
Clayton said he does what he can and physically, feels like he’s 50-years-old, which includes taking care of Lillian, who suffers from dementia.
“Sometimes she looks at pictures on the wall and doesn’t recognize our granddaughters,” he said. “But she’s a fighter.”
The couple said the key to their long-lasting marriage has been to take things day by day and never go to bed angry.
For Lillian, the simple key to their marriage is, “I love him, and we love each other.”