It all started with a lie 62 years ago

He was heading to war, she didn't want to be without him - truth took a vacation.

Published March 18, 2007

NEW PORT RICHEY - They didn't even know the witnesses at their own wedding. The priest just grabbed two strangers off the street.

The groom was an 18-year-old sailor from upstate New York about to ship off to the war in the Pacific. The bride was 20, a hostess at the USO where they first met.

It was Feb. 15, 1945. Wedding day.

Sixty-two years later, they're still together. And it all started with a lie.

"She lied. I lied. We all lied," he said. "But we got away with it."

Walter Howley had a seven-hour pass from New York's Sampson Naval Training Base. He didn't waste time. He strolled into the nearby USO.

There she was.

At that moment, Howley told himself: "I'm going to marry her."

No one told Dorothy that. "I guess I learned after the fact," she said.

It was her first day at the USO. He asked her to dance. He was a good dancer.

"Oh, it's kind of thrilling for a young girl to meet a service person," she said, "and have them ask you to dance."

* * *

Their six-month courtship began knowing the war would pull them apart. When he got back from his shakedown cruise in January, he proposed. Sort of.

"Look honey, it's wartime, I don't want to leave you behind as a young widow," he told her. "So let's wait until the war's over and we'll get married then."

She wasn't going to wait for any war.

"I'd rather remember some part of what we had," Dorothy said, "if something did happen to him."

She convinced him on the train ride to Virginia.

"She was whispering pretty nothings in my ear," he said.

They would marry now, before he shipped out.

But they were too young to marry. The clerk in Portsmouth wanted their folks' permission. She got hers. He called California to get his.

Eugenie Howley, his mom, answered. "She said 'no, you're too young,' " he said, "and she hung up."

* * *

So began the deception.

"I told everybody my ship's leaving tomorrow," Walter said.

But he didn't know that. In fact, ship departure times were kept secret during the war. Technically, that is what is called a lie.

So the clerk relented, giving them a marriage license - provided Walter's mom sent a telegram afterward giving her permission.

"Oh yeah," Walter told the clerk. "You'll get it in a week."

Then there was the three-day wait for a blood test. The couple got the clerk to waive it. They got the marriage certificate.

A week after the wedding, Dorothy stopped by the Western Union at New York's Grand Central Station.

Now imagine this: a 20-year-old woman dictating a telegram giving permission for her son to marry, then signing someone else's name: Eugenie Howley.

What did the folks at Western Union think?

"They kind of looked at me funny," Dorothy said.

* * *

Back to the wedding day.

They had fooled the state.

What about the church?

It was Lent, the 40 days of sacrifice before Easter. They're Catholic, and Catholics aren't supposed to marry during Lent. But by then Walter had learned just how well his my ship's leaving tomorrow line worked.

St. Paul's Church made an exception.

"It was just a priest and us two and the two witnesses," Walter said. "I don't even know their names."

* * *

So what did Eugenie Howley say when she found out?

"She said, 'You made your bed,' " her son recalled. " 'Go ahead and sleep in it.' "

And the rest, as they say, is history. The Howleys now have 13 living children (their second child died when she was 3 months old), 33 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren - make that 22.

"They're still in the oven," Walter said.

* * *

One more thing.

Remember the lie that started it all?

My ship's leaving tomorrow.

The day after his wedding Howley reported to the USS Gosselin with news of his new marriage.

"I asked the old man 'Can I have some time off?' " Howley said. "He said 'No, you've got one hour.' "

His ship really did sail the next day.