They climbed aboard gangplanks and airplanes, bringing with them bundled belongings, babies and anxious dreams.
Adventurous and sometimes impetuous, the war brides of World War II were also courageous enough to leave their homelands and families for an uncertain life in America with the men they chose to marry.
An estimated 300 war brides -- some accompanied by their spouses and children -- traded reminiscences and shed occasional tears at a war brides reunion, the first of its kind, held here this weekend aboard the Queen Mary.
There were myriad old photographs to examine -- mostly of young couples against exotic backgrounds the world over. Yellowed memories, with vintage hair styles and fashions, they spoke for a sentiment that has never gone out of style. Whether the young women were shown leaning against an ancient abbey in England, snuggling on a gondola in Venice, or posing in front of the Eiffel Tower, they were clearly in love. One popular pose: the girl wearing her boyfriend's military hat, and holding her skirt at just the right angle to show off a shapely gam.
For the war brides of these photographs, the impending 40th anniversary of V-E Day (May 8, 1945) and V-J Day (Aug. 15, 1945) made this reunion a sentimental journey. Equally appropriate was the setting. The one-time "Queen of the High Seas" was relieved of duty as a luxury liner in order to transport troops across the Atlantic Ocean in World War II. In addition to its 72 wartime voyages, the Queen Mary made 13 war bride trips -- during which time its decks were covered from bow to stern with diapers hung out to dry. As more than one war bride was to remind, "They didn't have disposable diapers then."
What the era did have -- as evidenced by the nostalgic stories exchanged -- was an overriding sense of commitment. To love as well as to country.
Said Sylvia Meade, a war bride from England, "The years were austere. It's not that we didn't have fun, because we did, but the time also made us take on responsibilities early. We grew up quickly. And when we fell in love, we wanted it to be forever." Remembering the day she climbed aboard the "war bride ship" Saturnia, she said, "They were playing that song, 'Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodbye,' but the workmen on the docks were also yelling up to us saying, 'You'll be sorry.' I assure you, we were not sorry."
Meade and her husband, Bill, met during a single day outing in Bournemouth, a resort town in the south of England. Her husband recalled, "She was in a restaurant, by herself. I couldn't keep from staring at her -- as you can see, she's still very beautiful. I also couldn't help but see these four Canadian soldiers staring at her, too. I knew one of them was about to make a move -- so I made mine first." Married just seven months later, the Meades, who reside in Castro Valley, Calif., will celebrate a 40th anniversary in November. They have two children and five grandchidren.
"And a lot of amazing memories," said Bill Meade. There were tears in his eyes as he added, "It was such a different world then, it's almost impossible to describe it to someone who wasn't there, but when they finally turned the lights on in the cities again it was like being reborn. So much had happened. A lot of us thought we were never going to make it home again. Our buddies had died. But war or no war, you can't stop people from falling in love."
According to Barbara Scibetta and Ellie Shukert, daughters of war brides and organizers of the reunion, an estimated 1 million foreign women married American servicemen between 1942, when the first GIs landed on Scottish shores, and 1952, when Americans stationed in Japan were permitted to marry their Japanese fiance's and bring them to the States. (American soldiers were stationed in 57 countries during the war years; they brought brides home from most of them.)
Upon arriving in this country, many war brides encountered new customs and sometimes hostile attitudes. Foreign accents made them subject to scrutiny. It was not uncommon for them to incur the wrath of American women who felt they had taken their boyfriends from them.
Interviewing about 1,500 war brides for a book they hope to publish, Scibetta and Shukert learned that some war brides ultimately regretted their marital moves. Said Scibetta, "They were young and in love and they didn't think much beyond that. They just didn't imagine the hardships. But you know, even when their marriages failed and these women really found themselves alone, they held fast. And they adapted."
Still, the children of war brides were sometimes caught between two cultures. It is no coincidence, believes Scibetta, that she and Shukert met in a university course titled "Problems in American Identity." Said Scibetta, "I think that it is emblematic for children of war brides. You have a sense of 'Who am I?' and 'Where do I belong?' At the same time, you feel enriched because you have two cultures."
Many of the reunion's war brides prided themselves on retaining their own customs -- especially in regard to food. Kathy Nelson, formerly of Lancashire in northern England, says she prepares trifles, scones and sausage rolls for Marvin, her husband of 35 years. Residents of Colorado Springs, the Nelsons met on a blind date in 1948 when he was stationed with the Army Air Corps.
Nelson, who was still in school when the GIs first came to her homeland, admits she had been long entranced by Americans. "I think I had always hoped to marry one. They were always so friendly and I liked their outgoing ways. The English really can be reserved. And, yes, I also found Americans heroic."
Prior to their marriage the Nelsons each had to persuade their concerned parents that they were right for one another. "I wound up coming to America and living with his family for a while. We were married after my mother-in-law approved of me. Thinking back on those days I can't blame her one bit," Nelson said, smiling.
For Finland's Talvikki Manninen, marriage to an American literally meant survival for herself and her children. She had fled Poland and was living in Bayreuth, Germany, when the American forces liberated the war camps, releasing prisoners of war and slave laborers. "They were so angry they would kill people suspected of being Nazis in the streets. I was so afraid that I took tags and made myself a little Finnish flag which I wore on my clothes. I used it to say, 'Please don't hurt me. I am a refugee.' "
She was also pregnant and the mother of a 6-month-old infant (her first husband was killed by Russian forces). "I was so afraid all of the time," said Manninen, who still grows breathless as she recounts the time two American soldiers followed her home from a food line ("where I begged for something to eat") to the attic room she shared with seven other refugees.
"They were wearing full gear. I was certain they would try to arrest me," said Manninen, who was instead greeted with the words, "Good day to you" -- in Finnish. As it turned out, the two were Finnish Americans who had spied the flag she wore.
Out of a sense of kinship, the men brought her food and supplies -- and vowed to assist her in emigrating to America. Their pledge was snarled by red tape. In the meantime, Manninen's second child was born. "My little girl was unconscious for the first two weeks of her life, because I had not been eating enough," said Manninen.
Her children were 3 and 2 when Norman Manninen admitted that he could find no way to get her into the country -- save marrying her. But before she could say her wedding vows, she and her toddlers endured a nightmarish week of screening on Ellis Island. "Oh my dear, you can never know . . . the confusion, the horrible filth. We would sleep in rooms filled with 50 cots. We had to use the same blankets used by the people before us. There were cockroaches all around us. When we finally left, my babies were covered with lice."
For the Manninens, who now live in Woodland Hills, Calif., what began as a marriage of convenience has lasted some 37 years. (Their surviving daughter is the mother of two.) Said Manninen, "I did what I did for my children. Because I had to do it. It happens that our marriage was right. For me, it had to be right. Because I have always had to be an optimist. I am not the kind of person to have regrets."
Along with tearful accounts, the war brides also shared smiles. Especially Jorgen Nielsen -- the only male war bride in attendance. Flanked by his wife, Virginia, who was a member of the Coast Guard when they met in Munich, where he worked for the Civil Censorship Division (as a civilian), he good-naturedly donned a T-shirt that proclaimed "I Was a Male War Bride." Cary Grant made that phrase famous by starring in the 1949 film of the same title. "We've seen that movie many times," said Virginia, who added, "but I wouldn't trade him for Cary Grant. Not by any means."
Residents of Seattle, the Nielsens -- who came to America together in 1947 -- believe their war years' meeting was "a bonding experience." Said Jorgen Nielsen, "It's been said that in peacetime you have one life, but in war you have many. We can never forget those lives we shared."
Australia's Doreen Battle -- now widowed from her husband of 39 years, a Navy man -- shared her war bride remembrances with daughter Lois Battle, author of the 1981 novel "War Brides." Seated alongside her daughter, Battle stressed, "I've never regretted what I did. But there were certainly difficult times. I can remember Thanksgiving days when I would be in the kitchen looking out my window watching all the relatives stream into the house across the street. That would get me to crying, and I would tell my husband, 'We don't have anyone here. Because everyone's at home Australia ,' and he'd argue, 'This is home.' Well, yes it was and no it wasn't. Because a part of me has always been in Australia."
There was pride in Lois Battle's voice as she noted, "These women were so brave. They went through so much. As a child, I used to try to tell my friends about my mother, and how she felt. They just couldn't quite understand though. They'd look at me kind of funny and say, 'What's homesick?' The only thing I could think to tell them was, 'It's when your heart hurts.' "