Nelta Smith Davis says it was love at first sight.
At 15 years old, she and her family were at the Birmingham Terminal Station (opened in 1909 and demolished in 1969), awaiting the arrival of her brother-in-law.
It was 1943, with World War II well underway: There were plenty of young men in uniform coming and going.
One soldier caught Nelta’s eye, and they began talking. Gilmer Davis, 19, was from Dorchester, a small mining camp in southwest Virginia near Norton. He had been drafted into the U.S. Army a few months earlier, and was at the train station in one of several stops to his destination — the south Pacific with the 147th Infantry Regiment.
Gilmer asked Nelta if she would write to him while he was at war. She agreed, but he had to write first so she would have his address.
“I didn’t think I’d ever her from him,” said Nelta.
She did hear from him, finally, and they wrote letters back and forth for two years while Gilmer traveled 45,000 miles on ships to Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Emaru, New Caledonia, Samoa and many other locations. He fought in three major battles, in Iwo Jima, Okinawa and Emaru.
One of Gilmer’s letters was special: The Virginia boy proposed to his Alabama sweetheart in one of the notes.
Except for $10 a month, Gilmer had been sending all of his pay to his mother. He had quit school in seventh grade, after his father died, to work and help support his family.
“There was five little ones to feed,” he said. There were eight siblings in all; four of the brothers ended up serving their country the military.
Gilmer said the Army made soldiers keep at least $10 a month. He saved up his money for a special reason, mailing it to his sister in Virginia to buy an engagement ring for Nelta.
“I thought it was the greatest thing,” Nelta said. “When I got the ring I was thrilled to death.”
When his military service ended, Gilmer made his way back home. His first stop was to see his mother in Virginia. He stayed home for two weeks.
“One day I said, ‘Mama, I’m going to Alabama,’” Gilmer said.
So he boarded a train and finally made his way to Nelta, where she lived at Tate’s Gap, near Oneonta.
For Nelta, the long wait for Gilmer to arrive home from war was “horrible. ... Every time I saw a soldier, my heart would be dippity dop,” she said.
Two weeks after Gilmer arrived at Nelta’s house, the two were married. It is a union that has lasted 65 years.
The couple at first moved to Virginia, then to Oregon for two years. From Oregon, they moved to Gadsden and then to Oneonta. In 1958, they built a house in Fultondale, where they still live.
Gilmer made a living at Alabama Trailer Company for more than 30 years, while Nelta worked in the dietary department at the Gardendale High School vocational center and then at the Jefferson County Nursing Home at Ketona.
The couple raised three children and have six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
“Sometimes people ask me the secret to making a marriage work,” Nelta said. “It’s give and take. I’s not always a honeymoon. You’ve got to just work things out.”