Jeannie was 6 months old and Ruthie, half that.
Jeannie and Ruthie were never held by their fathers, never heard their voices.
"You feel like a numskull, an idiot, being 68 years old and grieving for a father that you never met," Ruthie said. "It's almost like you're grieving for a phantom."
Jeannie said: "I didn't want to go to France. Too painful." Ruthie wouldn't consider traveling to the South Pacific.
But, for the first time, both women will observe Memorial Day near the places where their fathers' brief lives ended. Today, Jeannie will lay a wreath at the Rhone American Cemetery in Draguignan, France. Ruthie will place one at the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines.
Growing up, "I never knew another orphan, I never met anyone who knew someone who died in World War II," said Ruthie, a retired school nurse who lives in the Northeast. "My mother really didn't talk about it too much. That's the way things were."
The same held true for Jeannie, a retired social worker who resides in Elkins Park: "The attitude was this is painful. Let's get on with our life."
She got on with her life. The pain never left.
Ruthie recalled, "I never knew that term, war orphan, until college and my mother told me there was scholarship money for people like me."
Ruthie understood that George Ticknor was funny, "kind of a jokester." Jeannie knew that Bill Steinhurst studied engineering at MIT. "He was a tall, good-looking fellow, very good-natured," his brother, Hyman Steinhurst, told me. An only child, Jeannie grew up to look very much like her father.
There's so much that both daughters didn't know for so long, growing up in darkness. And that haunted them.
As adults, the two women learned more about their fathers, their deaths, about the existence of other orphans. They gleaned all this information the way most people learn so much these days, through the Internet.
They joined AWON, American WWII Orphans Network. Ruthie discovered that her father's name was recorded on the Wall of the Missing in Manila. She found Clifford Kuykendall, the lone survivor of the Tullibee's 80 sailors, a former Japanese prisoner of war.
"No orphan had ever looked for Cliff. We were the first family to visit," said Ruthie, who went with her three siblings to visit Kuykendall in Texas. Now they speak on the phone every few weeks.
Last year, Bill Phillips found Jeannie. His older brother, Roger, had been on the same medical transport plane as Bill Steinhurst. Phillips discovered a French pamphlet about the crash in Doizieux, based partially on eyewitness accounts, and sent Jeannie a copy. Only then did she learn that the French had erected a stele, a small monument to the crash victims, which she will visit later this week.
Both women craved companions with similar stories. And through AWON, that's how Jeannie found Ruthie a few weeks ago. They met for lunch and didn't stop talking until dinner six hours later.
In the amazing way their lives mirror each other, both women recently uncovered invaluable keepsakes - Jeannie found her parents' photo album, Ruthie discovered a cache of her father's letters - fresh information for the lifelong portrait they've created of an absent parent.
Last Monday they gathered again at Jeannie's apartment and pored over photos, discussing details before departing on journeys to visit their fathers' memorials.
"I had in mind that at some point in my life I would like to go to his grave," said Jeannie, who went to France with her husband, Len. "There are days when I think I'm crazy to do this."
Her uncle, now 91, a World War II veteran, hopes the trip will prove cathartic. "She never got over the fact that she was an orphan," he told me. "I think it's a wonderful thing for her."
Both women acknowledged that their journeys would be joyous and hard, that they will weep a lot for the fathers they never knew.
Ruthie said, "I think of the silence and the secrecy that enveloped most of my life."
But no longer.
Contact Karen Heller
at 215-854-2586 or email@example.com.