During the events of World War II, so many people were worried that their loved ones in the military might never come home. This is what happened to Phyllis Ponting, whose partner, Bill Walker, had no choice but to travel abroad to serve his country during. Phyllis was lost for words when she received a letter from him asking for her hand in marriage. However, when she sent a letter confirming that she said yes, she never recieved a reply and he never came home. However, recently, his letter was finally delivered. What did it say? And how did it finally make its way to her? Join us on this fasinating journey to find out.
She Finally Received His Letter
How would you feel if your loved one was serving their country and after writing an important letter to them, they never wrote back? One woman never got closure after her fiance served in World War II and never returned home.
99-year-old Phyllis Ponting has lived an entire life since her partner Bill Walker was declared missing in action. However, nearly 80 years later, she has finally received his last letter. But how did it find its way back to her?
Love At First Sight
Phyllis’ lifelong story with Bill Walker began all the way back in the late ’30s. They had met each other in Devizes, a small market town in Wiltshire, England.
While Phyllis had grown up there, Bill had relocated to Devizes as he was stationed at the Wiltshire Regiment’s barracks. With World War II on the horizon, Walker was obligated to serve his country. It wouldn’t take long before war completely got in the way of the couple’s plans…
Will You Marry Me?
As soon as World War II broke out, Bill Walker said farewell to Phyllis and traveled with his comrades to India, which is where he was posted.
Like so many families and loved ones, Phyllis had no idea whether she would ever see Bill again and their primary way of communication was through letters. Then, on one fateful day, Phyllis received a letter from Bill, who asked for her hand in marriage. She replied without haste…
She Wrote “Yes”
In Phyllis’s mind, it was a resounding “yes.” There was nothing she wanted more than to tie the knot with Bill. So she sent her letter, in which she wrote her acceptance of his marriage proposal, hoping that it would reach him in good time.
Days passed, and then weeks, and then months, yet no letter of response came her way. Despite this, Phyllis didn’t give up hoping that she’d receive Bill’s letter, for a while, at least…
He Never Replied
Alas, Phyllis never ended up receiving a letter of response from Bill. It got to a point when she just assumed that he had either changed his mind or died.
However, the more she thought about it, only one of those options made sense. “I don’t think Bill can have survived the war, otherwise he would have been straight round to my address in Roseland Avenue,” she said. “We would have been married. He loved me a lot.”
Trying To Move On
You know what they say, “time is the greatest healer.” Well, as the years passed, the pain of losing Bill became easier to bear, especially since Phyllis ended up marrying another man by the name of Jim Holloway.
With him, she had four children and over the years, she has also had four grandkids and seven great-grandkids. And after Jim passed away, Phyllis found love once again with Ronald Ponting. Little did Phyllis know though, a letter would eventually make its way to her…
The SS Gairsoppa
It turns out that Bill Walker had in fact written a letter in response to Phyllis’s proposal acceptance and it wasn’t the only one that went missing.
The letter was one of over 700 envelopes that were found in a shipwreck. The ship was the SS Gairsoppa, a steam-powered cargo ship that was returning to Liverpool from India back in 1941. While it was confirmed that Bill wasn’t one of the passengers on that ship, the letter he wrote to Phyllis certainly was…
While details are murky, researchers do know that the SS Gairsoppa was on the verge of completing its journey from India to Liverpool on February 17, 1941.
Seeing that it was running out of fuel, the ship was forced to break away from the Convoy SL 64. It seemed that Germany U-boats were looking for opportunities to gun down as many enemy vessels as possible. Surely enough, as the Gairsoppa got close to its destination, a single torpedo struck it, spelling doom for everyone on board…
The Ship’s Fate
Just 20 minutes after the German torpedo struck it, the SS Gairsoppa sunk to the bottom of the sea. While the armed forces did everything in their power to save the passengers, launching three lifeboats in the process, nearly every single person died.
During the last few minutes that the ship was afloat, the soldiers awaited the Captain’s command. While the chances of anyone surviving the wreckage were incredibly slim, it seemed like the soldiers were determined to defy the odds…
Desperate To Survive
Second Officer Richard Ayres was one of the many soldiers who were desperately fighting for their lives amidst the chaos. Convinced that his life could very much be ending at this moment.
He tried to keep his composure as he and his troops followed orders from Captain Gerald Hyland. As Ayres watched, stood and waited for the next move, the Captain ended up making a decision that would decide the fates of every single soul on the SS Gairsoppa…
This Is The End?
With so much responsibility on his shoulders, Captain Gerald Hyland’s decisions during this perilous time ultimately cost the lives of nearly everyone on board.
After becoming vulnerable from breaking away from the convoy and being hit by the torpedo, the Captain then ordered his men to abandon the shop and jump into the launched lifeboats. By then, it was too late. The Germans gunned down many of the crew members. However, a small group of soldiers managed to escape…
The Great Escape
It seemed like a slight glimmer hope was on the horizon. The ocean may have been ice-cold, but the crew knew that they had no choice but to jump overboard and reach the lifeboat.
This group of soldiers included Second Officer Richard Ayres. As they jumped on the lifeboat, they looked back at their beloved SS Gairsoppa, watching it sink underneath the surface of the water. They had no idea what had happened to the men on the other lifeboats.
Ayres Took Command
Without a Captain in sight and just 31 soldiers left to fend for themselves, Richard Ayres took command. He had eight European soldiers and 23 Indians to lead to safety in what seemed to be an impossible mission.
The reason that Ayres took command was that he was the only one who knew who to sail a boat. While the soldiers remained hopeful that they’d eventually reach land, many obstacles came their way and their struggle for survival was far from over…
Stranded At Sea
After just about managing to escape the clutches of the German U-Boats, Ayres and his men were stranded at sea, with little idea of how to find refuge.
With limited food supplies and a shortage of fresh water, Ayres needed to ration the distributions amongst the surviving soldiers. After eight days in the lifeboat, men started to die of starvation and dehydration. And yet, Ayres was still there, determined to keep as many people alive as possible.
Ayres and his crew of survivors saw many setbacks during these testing times, and “had barely enough hope and heart to carry on.”
Originally 31 men strong, there were only seven men remaining. However, after 13 days stranded at sea, some sort of hope was finally on the horizon. One of the soldiers uttered the word “land” after spotting the Lizard lighthouse, which was an unmistakable indicator that they were at the southernmost tip of England. However, another obstacle came their way…
Having reached a point that was 300 miles away from where the SS Gairsoppa had sunk, Ayres and his men desperately tried to get to shore.
However, they were in for a rude awakening when a large wave came crashing and capsized the boat. Just like that, four of the seven men drowned. Amazingly, Ayres was one of the three surviving men and dragged the other two onto the capsized boat. However, another huge wave hit them…
The second wave took the lives of the other two men. This meant that Ayres had no choice but to fend for himself. In the last two weeks, 83 out of 84 men had perished, and he was the only one who was still alive.
Despite being on the verge of death, Ayres somehow kept going, knowing that he had a little bit more strength. Then, he spotted three young women who were walking on some of the Cornish coastline’s cliffs…
Soon enough, the three women noticed a figure in the waters. One of them ran to get help, while the other two rushed over to Ayres. Eventually, a lifeguard came along and threw him a rope.
It was in that moment that Richard Ayres had done the impossible – he had reached safety after being lost at sea for 13 days. The heroic man received an MBE and a War Medal. While Ayres’ story ended when he passed away in 1992, the SS Gairsoppa’s story and Phyllis’ were far from over…
Researchers Found The Ship
Fast forward approximately 70 years later. In 2011, a team of archeologists finally located the wreckage of the SS Gairsoppa after two months of persistent searching.
They found the wreckage on the sea bed off the coast of Ireland. It was clear that this was the same ship that Richard Ayres had fled all those years ago. The researchers could even see the torpedo hole. However, it was what the researchers found inside the ship that blew their minds…
Preserved For Years
While there’s reportedly a lot of silver on board the SS Gairsoppa, many archeologists were excited when they stumbled across 700 perfectly preserved letters.
“It’s the largest collection of letters since people started to write to survive any shipwreck,” museum curator Sean Kingsley said. “It shouldn’t have been preserved, but because there was no light, there was no oxygen, it was darkness, it was like putting a collection of organics in a tin can, sealing it up and putting it in a fridge freezer.”
The Moment Of Truth
While Richard Ayres survived the perils of war, it seems all but certain that Bill Walker did not. However, when BBC’s The One Show did a feature about the many letters found on the Gairsoppa, researchers were able to locate Phyllis’s whereabouts and a representative of the London Postal Museum paid her a special visit.
After receiving copies of Bill’s letter, she braced herself as she read the words she thought she’d never get a chance to see…
Sigh Of Relief
Phyllis had previously held onto the belief that Bill loved her and would have swiftly returned to her if he had the chance to. Upon reading his letter, his words all but confirmed this.
“Wish you could have been there when I opened it. I wept with joy,” he wrote. “I could not help it. If you could only know how happy it made me, darling.” But what about all the other letters that never reached the soldiers’ loved ones?
While other surviving loved ones of soldiers have had an opportunity to read the letters that were resting on the sea bed for all those years, this mesmerizing collection now has its very own exhibition.
Together, the letters are the highlight of an emotional exhibition called “Voices from the Deep.” “I can’t believe the letter was at the bottom of the sea and now I can read it,” Phyllis said. The letters are on display at London’s Postal Museum until June 30, 2019.