Here Came The War Brides
Sunday, February 12, 2006
Vera is certain even now that it began with the red dress. London in the waning months of World War II was unbearably dark and dreary. Vera Cracknell was just 18, and sick of the anti-barrage balloons that blotted out the sun, sick of carrying the smelly rubber gas mask wherever she went. One day, a flash of color brought her to a halt outside a downtown shop window. Vera remembers her older sister shaking her head.
"You can't buy that! It would take all your coupons!"
The dress had tiny brass rivets and a twirly skirt. Vera was a junior hostess at an American Red Cross club behind Harrod's. Dancing with the flirtatious GIs let her forget the screaming bombers and deafening ack-ack guns. She handed over her entire year's worth of clothing rations and took the red dress home.
When she wore it for the first time, an American sergeant followed her into the club and asked her to dance. In the sunroom of his Leisure World condo near Leesburg, Charles Long recalls the moment with tender conviction: "It was love at first sight, absolutely." With her raven hair, porcelain skin and eyes the pale green of sea glass, Vera toyed with her share of suitors, but Charles persevered even after she stood him up on their first date.
They married when the war ended, and Vera soon found herself crossing the Atlantic aboard the Queen Mary, the famed luxury liner winding down her war service as part of an amazing armada carrying some 70,000 young British war brides and their babies.
It was 60 years ago this month that the first ship arrived in New York Harbor, launching what was officially known as the War Brides Operation. Over the next five months, 20 converted war ships would be in perpetual motion across the Atlantic, a floating procession of brides. Some 200 reporters and newsreel cameras greeted the first "petticoat pilgrims," as the British media had dubbed them. A special act of Congress had waived immigration quotas for the war brides, and they claimed a unique place in the country's social fabric -- a mass influx of foreigners drawn here not by need but by love. Across America the women scattered, becoming Iowa farmwives who grew "tomahtoes" or overly polite New Yorkers who muttered "oy vey" with British accents. They rode trolleys through the streets of Washington and plied swamp boats through the backwaters of Mississippi.
They slipped quietly into their new lives, and were quickly forgotten.
Love isn't like that anymore, is what Joan Stubbs will tell you if you ask her. "Today people stand up in front of the altar and pledge their lives and don't mean it," she laments from the house her husband built her in Gloucester, Va. She married her Walter when she was just 17. He was one of the Army Air Corps boys who played cards each night in the village cafe; she was the air-raid warden's daughter who would come remind them to draw the blackout curtains. Sometimes Walter would walk her home in the moonlight. "He liked to talk," she remembers, "and I liked to listen."
War had already torn a gaping hole in Joan's childhood. She and her older sister were among thousands of schoolchildren evacuated from the capital when the London Blitz began, sent to the countryside to live with strangers. Joan was 11. The besieged capital was 30 miles away, she guesses, and "at night you could see London burning." When Joan was 14, her father came to collect her -- their house had been destroyed in a direct hit, and now her parents were fleeing the city as well. They all moved to a one-lane village called Bourne End, near the aerodrome where B-17s took off. Walter Stubbs belonged to the regiment known as Fame's Favored Few.
Joan was aboard that first love boat to America. She remembers the Argentina setting sail without fanfare. "We weren't allowed to have anyone see us off," she says. Families had to bid their daughters farewell at the train station. The girls then reported to processing camps, where there were mountains of forms to fill out in triplicate, thick stacks of documents to read and humiliating physicals to endure, standing naked before Army doctors who scanned their bodies with flashlights.
The U.S. military bore the cost of transportation, but the Red Cross budget to staff and supply the operation was $100,000. At the processing camps, cradles were made out of orange crates, while 20 war vessels were stocked with pureed peas, talcum powder and safety pins. Babies had to be at least 3 months old to travel, and women could not be more than seven months pregnant. Joan met a woman who slipped on the deck and would have lost her daughter overboard if a passing steward hadn't caught the infant. Thirteen babies who sailed from Belgium with their mothers aboard the Zebulon Vance were reported dead after an outbreak of diarrhea.
Sometimes the stress of waiting for passage from war-torn Europe pushed the brides to the breaking point. When 87 women expecting to ship out of Germany discovered there was space for only 10, bedlam erupted at the processing camp.