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Cloverdale widow recalls romance that blossomed in midst of war

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012 | Posted by

By CHRIS SMITH

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

As she read, reread and replied to love letters from a shy sweetheart off at war, 1938 Hopland High graduate Marjorie McNeill wore a uniform, too.

Marjorie McNeil (JEFF KAN LEE/ PD)

She was 23 when she decided it was time she did more to defend her country.

“There was nothing I could do in Hopland,” she said, “and all the boys had gone off to the service.”

One of the young men who’d left to defend the country following Japan’s attack on U.S. forces in the Pacific was a quiet and likeable Healdsburg native, George Dogali. He and McNeill met early on during World War II, when he made a brief visit home.

She recalled, “The excitement then — this’ll kill you — the excitement then was at Fred Reed’s service station north of Cloverdale.”

Reed ran a popular beer bar in the station, and one day McNeill was there with a girlfriend when she noticed that a GI in uniform had noticed her.

It was Dogali. He summoned the courage to say something to her. Right then, the young soldier who’d grown up in Healdsburg and Cloverdale hit it off with a young woman from Hopland. When he returned to duty, they began to exchange letters.

McNeill could only worry and wonder when the letters from Dogali stopped in mid-1943. She learned later he and the Army’s 7th Infantry Division were shipped to the frigid Aleutians to dislodge the Japanese from Attu Island, a springboard to Alaska.

Dogali was wounded in the offensive in which the 7th Infantry lost 600 men and the Japanese more than 2,300. Destined not to return to combat duty, Dogali was still recovering from shrapnel wounds to a leg when his sweetheart back in California joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, soon to become the Women’s Army Corps or WAC.

McNeill’s enlistment made her one of more than 350,000 women who would serve in uniform in World War II. Having worked after high school as a clerk at Hopland’s post office, she figured the Army would put her to work in that same capacity on a base somewhere.

That’s not what came to be.

After basic training late in 1943 in Iowa, the recruit who’d only once in her life left California — on a trip to Reno — was ordered to report to New York City, then to a recruiting office in the Jamaica area of Queens.

“I didn’t like it,” she said. “I was never a city girl.”

“I remember the first Christmas. My roommates wanted to go downtown to Times Square and see the Christmas tree. I didn’t want to go. I preferred to stay in my bunk and feel sorry for myself.”

She felt better, although a mite confused, on the day she opened a letter from Dogali, stationed at the time in Hawaii. Out of the envelope dropped an engagement ring.

“But he hadn’t asked me to marry him,” she said.

Months later, they both returned to opposite sides of the Sonoma-Mendocino County line to visit their folks. Dogali was at the McNeill house in Hopland when his girlfriend told him she appreciated the ring she hadn’t yet worn but she needed to hear some words.

“I told him, ‘If you want me to marry you, let’s have a proposal.’ ” The soldier and Purple Heart recipient popped the question.

They didn’t marry right then. In May 1945, about the time of Germany’s surrender, both McNeill and Dogali arranged for furloughs — she from her clerical duties at the recruiting station in Queens, he from his work at Scott Field in Illinois.

They met back home, and on May 17 both wore their uniforms to their wedding at Cloverdale’s St. Peter’s Catholic Church.

“I guess were just meant for each other,” said the woman known these past 67 years as Marjorie Dogali. “He was just a good person.”

Their honeymoon was brief.

“We were married on a Thursday and that weekend we probably had to be headed back east,” she said.

The groom threw caution to the wind and accompanied his bride all the way to New York — his service record would reflect that he returned from his wedding three days AWOL.

With the war approaching an end, Marjorie Dogali was transferred immediately to Fort Dix in New Jersey.

“That was the most rewarding part of my service,” she said with a fond smile. Her new duties were to type discharge certificates for returned soldiers aching to go home.

“Here were all these GIs, back from the war, milling around in their combat boots, just waiting for the paper,” she said.

Both Dogalis received their own discharge certificates shortly after Japan surrendered in August 1945. They settled in Cloverdale and lived for a time in an apartment behind the house George’s sister owned.

George took work at the town’s Triangle service station and truck stop. Pretty soon, Marjorie gave birth to the first of their three children.

The family lived for years in a bungalow George built in Cloverdale. He drove a fuel-oil truck for a time and was employed at the Louisiana-Pacific lumber mill when he retired to grow grapes on the hilltop property northeast of town that he and Marjorie moved onto in the 1970s.

Veterans Day was always a solemn and meaningful occasion for them.

“We were both very proud of our service,” Marjorie said.

The ex-infantryman she loved was 86 when he died in 2005. When Marjorie gazed down at him for the final time, he was dressed in his Veterans of Foreign Wars dress uniform, with brass buttons.

His widow is 92 now, doing well and still living in the house on the hill up out of Cloverdale. She kept all of George’s wartime letters and she’s grateful for the special bond that grew from their shared experiences while serving and defending their country.

“I really treasure my memories,” Marjorie said. Many feature the quiet soldier who braved speaking to her at Fred Reed’s station a rather boggling 70 years ago.

You can reach Staff Columnist Chris Smith at 521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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Mary Jo Winter is our Cloverdale correspondent.
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