Discovering facts about a parent after he is gone can be an enlightening and rewarding endeavor. For Belfast's Mary Santiago, it meant uncovering a side of her father she never knew and he rarely spoke of.

"On Nov. 12, 2016, the day after Veterans Day, my Dad died," Santiago wrote in an email. "This marked the beginning of the adventure for my three sisters and me into the life of my father and his years in active duty with the Army Air Corps (in World War II)."

Though he hardly talked about his life in the service, he was active in veteran activities and organizations, she said. He marched in parades, served as commander of the American Legion in his community, and frequently participated in graveside services of fallen soldiers. He also stayed in close touch with his buddies from the 600th Squadron, having frequent reunions, until he was the only one remaining.

"He left us with an instilled respect for those who serve," Santiago said, "and he left us with stacks of letters!"

Saved in the back of his closet, along with all his military items, uniforms, mess kit and documents, were hundreds of letters.

During the war, letters were the way soldiers kept in touch with home and normalcy, and the way people supported the troops, Santiago said.  "Dad's were so special to him, he kept almost all of them. It was hard to decide how to approach what appeared to be hundreds of envelopes."

Initially Santiago began separating the letters into stacks — on one side, men or "buddies" he kept in touch with, and others from women, including family, friends and pen pals.

"In all there were 54 different women writing to my father when he was overseas," Santiago said. 

"Dear soldier boy will you be my pen pal?" reads one note from a fifth-grade student, who would go on to write to Santiago's father until she graduated from high school.

Of all the letters from women writers, one stack was thicker than any of the others. The correspondence was from a woman in Ohio studying to be a nurse at Henry Ford Hospital in Michigan. Her name was Marty.

In May 1944, Santiago's father, nicknamed "Iowa," was stationed at Willow Run in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and he met Marty at a dance. He and his buddies walked a group of student nurses back to their dorm, where everyone exchanged names and addresses.

"She was probably writing to a dozen men at the time, but you 'clicked' more with people you shared a common background with," Santiago said.

Marty corresponded with him all throughout his deployment. "He moved around to six different bases until he was shipped out to Leyte, a Philippine island, in February 1945," Santiago said. He arrived there shortly after Gen. Douglas MacArthur retook the Philippines from the Japanese. He then went to Yokohama, Japan, in September 1945, weeks after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

"As I read her letters, I became charmed by her life. Not having the letters he wrote her, I was only seeing half the story, but as she reflected on the questions he had asked her it was easy to piece the rest together. I recognized this was not a love story, but one of patriotism."

The two were not trying to develop a relationship; this was about Marty trying to boost morale and her father being excited to hear about news from home, Santiago noted.

Their backgrounds were similar: rural, Midwest, and disrupted by war, longing to be home, with both having a brother on the European front. Marty came from a small town in Ohio and wrote about current events, movies, even what crops were doing at the time. "Iowa" was from a small town in that state, where his family farmed.

In one letter, Marty wrote about how, not far from her home in Ohio, there was a farm estate owned by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Louis Bromfield, one of the first organic farmers of the time, and she said Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart were married on Bromfield's farm in May 1945.

In an Aug, 15, 1945, letter Marty wrote to Iowa, "Happy Victory Celebration!! Isn't it wonderful? When I got up at 7:30 yesterday Mother said that the message had been received by the Swiss and the war was over! I didn't feel like celebrating and went back to my room and had a cry."

The two lost contact sometime in the early '50s.

"I knew she was a spirited young woman, and I wanted to know what happened to her after the letters ceased," Santiago said. "Because they contained so much of Marty's family history, I decided her family should have them."

Santiago's initial search led her to look online, where she found a grocery store with Marty's last name, but she was unable to get a response. Undeterred, she found Marty's sister's obituary and contacted the funeral home, which also did not respond. She then reached out to the church Marty's sister attended, listed in her obituary. An "elderly church lady" told Santiago she knew of Marty and her family.

The next morning, Marty's daughter called Santiago and was ecstatic to hear about the letters. It wasn't until Marty's daughter said, "This will be such great news for her," that Santiago realized Marty was still alive.

"I sent the letters to her daughter, and she told me she sat down and read them right away before giving them to her mother," Santiago said. "I've kept in touch with her daughter and we correspond with each other frequently."

Santiago learned that Marty became a nurse, married and had children. Santiago’s father also eventually married — a nurse — and had several children.

In one of the letters, Santiago read about a kimono her father had given Marty, and asked Marty's daughter about it. The daughter was amazed to discover her mother had stored it in the bottom of a cedar chest all these years.

Shortly thereafter, Santiago received a package, and in it was the kimono her father had sent Marty as a gift from Japan.

In a letter included with the kimono, Marty said, "It is truly a real miracle that you found my address after so many years and I could return the kimono and obi (sash) to the rightful family …. I have had a wonderful life and never expected to be this old …. Thank you for introducing your beautiful family and solving the kimono dilemma."