Providence Journal Feature on Tim Gray South Pacific Film
by Bob Kerr: Son’s devotion brings to light a WWII love story
Vic Del Regno has had his mother’s and father’s letters to one another during World War II bound into volumes, and a documentary film on their narrative is in the works.
As he read his father’s words, Vic Del Regno was struck by two things — their passion and their eloquence. He remembers his father as a man with an eighth-grade education who kept a very tight hold on his emotions.
Yet here are the words of Andrew Del Regno in a letter written from the South Pacific on May 8, 1945:
“Yes, many were lost and many more are to be again before the final curtain comes down on all this miserable man-made fury called war.”
It was a time when letters, words on paper, were emotional currency. They sustained and tested relationships. They connected peaceful places to war-torn places. And they allowed a man who never got past the eighth grade to show how precious the language could be.
Vic Del Regno has a treasure trove. He has the letters sent between his mother and father while his father served with the Seabees in the South Pacific for two hard years. And he has treated them with a deep appreciation for their value.
He remembers when he and his sister found the letters in the attic of the house in Nyack, N.Y. They read and they giggled at this unexpected glimpse into their parents’ private lives.
Those letters got moved around some, from attic to closet to garage. Someday, somebody was going to sit down and read them and organize them.
It finally happened two years ago when Del Regno began taking the letters from the small trunk in which his wife, Theresa, had put them.
“It took a few days just to put the envelopes in chronological order,” he says.
The letters are more than 60 years old. Some were fragile, on very thin paper. There were stains, mildew.
“I had to unfold them very carefully,” he says.
Then, he began to read, back through his family’s history and his country’s history. He read his way back to that time when war would take his father, who worked as a house mover, out of Nyack to train with the 35th Seabee Battalion at Davisville before heading to the South Pacific. And it would take him back to a time when Nyack, a small town on the Hudson River, would change dramatically and present a newly married young woman with possibilities she had probably never dreamed of.
Somewhere, amidst that stack of well-worn paper, Del Regno had his “holy cow” moment.
“I said, ‘There’s a story here, a book.’ ”
The book, or books, sit on a table in the beautiful house in South Kingstown where the Del Regnos moved three years ago to be near their daughter Maria, her husband, Michael Mele, and their children.
The books are striking. They are beautifully bound. They are testament to Del Regno’s pride and fascination, his loyalty and diligence. And to turn their pages is to learn a story that is much more than one family’s World War II memories.
“It’s a fairly unique project,” says Beau Jones, whose Image Design Company in Wakefield became Vic Del Regno’s publisher.
Del Regno brought his treasure to Jones when he knew he owed those precious pieces of his family’s past more than just careful arrangement in another set of boxes.
“It took on this life,” he says.
Jones scanned more than 2,000 items — letters, envelopes, pictures, postcards. He laid out more than 1,400 pages.
“It was an exercise in organization,” says Jones.
When he was finished, Jones and Del Regno took the work to W.E. Jackson & Company, the bookbinders in Centredale that have been in business since 1921.
“Who Knew: A World War II Journey Through Love Letters” is not available at your local bookstore. But it will have a rich and devoted readership. It will be a family centerpiece and a piece of history. And probably by the end of next year, it will be available on your TV screen.
“It shows his compassion for what his father went through,” says Jack Sprengel, a retired Seabee who is active in the Seabee museum still taking shape at Davisville.
Sprengel is one of the people Del Regno contacted while putting the book together. Del Regno had not been aware that his father had trained in a place not far from the house in South Kingstown.
Sprengel sees the work Del Regno has done as filling in a valuable piece of Seabee history.
“It’s an account of what Seabees went through in a personal way,” he says. “It’s the human side of what happened.”
It is that. While reading the letters and arranging them in chronological order, Del Regno noticed there were gaps in his mother’s responses. She didn’t write for months. She even missed her husband’s birthday.
“He’s gone for two years and he’s writing these passionate love letters,” says Del Regno. “At one point, he says a friend of his got 12 letters and he didn’t get any.”
What Andrew Del Regno did not know at the time was that Nyack had changed. The Army had taken over a large chunk of the town and built a training base. There were thousands of young recruits looking for the things young recruits look for.
Among the letters is one from a friend back home telling Andrew Del Regno that his wife had been seen with soldiers in various hotels.
“His tent mate then wrote a letter back to my mother saying, ‘How could you do this?’ ” says Del Regno.
Helen Del Regno asked for forgiveness. She and her husband worked it out. After the war, after Andrew returned from the Philippines where he’d been set to prepare for the invasion of Japan, the Del Regnos settled down and raised six children.
“I think I love my parents even more after learning this,” says Del Regno. Still, he had to arrange a family meeting to convince his brothers and sisters that the book was a good idea.
It was probably inevitable that Del Regno and Tim Gray would get together. Their work intersects in a bunch of places. Gray, the former TV sportscaster who has created his own production company, Tim Gray Media, has produced two fine World War II documentaries: “D-Day: The Price of Freedom” and “Navy Heroes of Normandy.” Now, he will produce a third.
Gray met Del Regno through a mutual friend. He saw the work Del Regno had done. “To me, it’s an absolute natural,” says Gray. “There are so many different elements. I’ve never seen anything quite like this before — the way he documented everything.”
They have already been back to Nyack and they will go again. Next summer, they will go back to the South Pacific, to Guadalcanal and then to the small island of Banika where Andrew Del Regno spent most of his time.
Vic Del Regno, a retired business executive, is paying for the entire project. It is further proof, if any were needed, of his belief that the story of his parents and World War II is a story that resonates far beyond his family.
He hopes his work will move others to find their own well-worn letters in the attic or the garage and learn history in a personal way.
Del Regno dedicated his amazing piece of work to his parents — to his father for showing a side of himself his children never knew and to his mother for saving the letters.