World War II War Brides: Courage Wasn’t Just on the Battlefield

Happy May Day!  a love story written by a daughter to her mother.

As I perused the internet one day,  I  stumbled upon a Facebook group called War Brides from World War II. It chronicles the history through ship lists, photos and personal histories of the brides, who made their way over to America and Canada after World War II.  My mother was a War Bride and I instantly felt connected to the people, as I began to to read through some of the stories lovingly re-told on those pages.

My mother and father’s love story , I thought was unique, set against the backdrop of war ravaged England. What I found were many such touching stories of love. I was moved to tears reading some of them.

My father’s eyes would light up reminiscing. He was stationed near the town of Attleborough, England. My mother’s home village. One night my dad and his buddies went to a dance held there.  He was a tall Yank, a Staff Sergeant in the “Mighty Eighth” Air Force, 452nd Bomb Group, Propeller Specialist. My mother was playing the piano, she was a secretary turned ambulance driver due to the casualties of war. He looked across the crowded room and saw her, it was love at first sight. They danced and he later met her parents. They invited him over for Sunday dinners. My parents would talk for hours about their future and all it held. Just as many in love do, except that this was during war when their fate was up in the air, with the buzz bombs and B-17’s.

There were happy times too. Now that the statute of limitations has run out, I can confess. My father used to recount a story I’m hazy about. It had to do with a stolen parachute, a bicycle in the dark and my father pedaling furiously to my mother’s house to proudly present her and her sisters with a silk parachute. This prized possession being made into stockings and blouses soon after that.  Earning points with the family was surely a catalyst for this crime spree.

My parents were married and gave birth to my sister. Then came the end of the war and Dad had to depart with his unit back to the U.S. to be de-mobbed (discharged.) There would be a long absence while my mother went through all of the proper channels to be brought over to America on a ship with other War Brides and their babies. There were tears when she left her family. My granddad hugged her goodbye, slipped her all of his savings and told her, “If things don’t work out, you can always come home my dear.” I’m sure that scene was played out hundreds of times in parlors all across England.

On May Day (May l, 1946) 69 years ago, my mother and sister entered New York Harbor in the dark of night on a War Bride ship. The ship was anchored until morning because of the deep fog.  Sleep was fleeting with the anticipation of the next day and what it would bring. My mother missed her family back home but also missed her new husband who she hadn’t seen in months. What would this new country be like? She didn’t get much sleep that night and remembers the sound of the foghorn bellowing it’s deep eee-ooow all night long.

My mother and sister were among the 70,000 women and children that came over in 1946 with “Operation War Bride.” The G.I.s who married foreigners were promised free passage and citizenship for their new family. Some of the voyages were anything but a vacation at sea. Some of the first ships were not well equipped for the amount of women and babies they housed. There were stories of running out of baby formula and food, overflowing toilets and un-inhabitable conditions on board. On one ship many babies died and the mothers were unjustly blamed for the less than hygienic conditions on board.

The women who took those voyages after the war were starting a new life for themselves and their babies. Before commercial aviation became more accessible, many of them were leaving their families at home possibly never to see them again. My mother was fortunate enough to go back in 1949, but then had to wait another ten years to make the long trek home.

In total, 100,000 war brides left the United Kingdom between 1942 and 1952. The British War Brides were the largest single group of female immigrants to the U.S. When they arrived, they were not ensconced into a larger immigrant group. They were disbursed into American society and went where their husbands went. They were alone. A staggering one million marriages took place between military personnel and foreign nationals during and immediately after World War II.

There were promises made and broken, men who abandoned their new wives, poverty, and the realization to some that their dreams of a land with streets paved with gold didn’t pan out. It took courage to leave their families and country behind. Their lives were changed forever. They were not immediately accepted with open arms in America, the culture difference and accents made it difficult for the women who came over here,  from “over there.”

When we remember the courageous men and women who fought during the war, we shouldn’t forget the courage it took these women who braved the new and unknown in order to start a new life , they influenced their new homeland with their culture, food and customs just as other immigrants had done before and after them.

In spite of the war, a little bit of something good happened along the way. Love blossomed and these immigrant brides, courageously prevailed and in doing so, changed the course of history.

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About Diane Hiller

Diane has lived in the suburbs of Chicago for twenty-five years. While raising her three children with husband Jon, she has served as village president and now supports historic preservation with the Clarendon Hills Historical Society. Diane’s blog “Pleasant Valley Sunday” appears on TheHinsdalePatch.com. and chlife.wordpress.com.
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