LONDON, OCT. 16 -- German bombs were falling regularly on Southampton that dismal summer 50 years ago. And so when the offer came, Grace and John Mathews did not hesitate to send their three eldest children to a safe haven -- the United States.

The sea voyage was harrowing -- it was two months before they learned that their children had arrived safely and had not died in a U-boat attack on a sister vessel. And it would be five long, difficult years before the children returned home, years in which they and the world they lived in changed dramatically.

Today the children and their mother gathered at the Imperial War Museum here with their American foster-family and other "evacuees," participants in a little-known episode of British-American cooperation. It was a reunion designed to recall those bittersweet years and to pay tribute to the special relationship between the two countries that was epitomized by the willingness of British families to entrust their children to strangers across the ocean.

"They were ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances," said Jocelyn Statler, youngest of the Mathews children, who stayed behind while her three siblings went to America. She has compiled a book, called "Special Relations," of letters between the families during the war years.

U.S. Ambassador Henry Catto, who attended today's reunion along with a dozen other dignitaries and local politicians, called the meeting "a chance to salute some truly marvelous people." And referring to Britain's enthusiastic support for the U.S. position in the Persian Gulf crisis, he added, "It makes me think of how often in times of peril Britain and the United States find themselves the truest of friends."

Some 5,000 British children were evacuated to the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa during the first year of the war in a private effort to offer sanctuary. They were sent off by parents who had no clear idea of where they were going or what life would be like at the end of the journey. It was an act of desperation and a leap of faith.

"My father believed there would be good people there who would care for his children and protect them at a time when evil was rampaging in Europe," said Statler. "Thousands of other people had the same faith. That is what the special relationship meant to us."

For many of the British parents, the separation was a combination of agony, guilt and gratitude. "We lost five years of their lives and it was dreadful in many ways," recalled Grace Mathews, now 90. "But we were so happy they ended up in a good home. We did it for the sake of the children. Looking back now, I'm not sorry about it."

For many of the children, however, it was a time of adventure, a chance to enter a new world they otherwise might never have known. Some were permanently affected, settling down in the United States. Others recall their time there with a special fondness.

Peter Isaac, a documentary filmmaker and author, found himself at age 8 in the lap of Hollywood luxury: he and his older sister were taken in by film producer Hal Wallis. He recalls five idyllic years at poolside watching an endless parade of celebrities and sycophants.

One of the film stars he remembers best was a young Ronald Reagan. During the making of "Desperate Journey," which starred Reagan and Errol Flynn, he said, the stars would come by the Wallis home several times a week to view the rushes late in the day. While waiting for the van to arrive, Reagan would often join Isaac and his sister at poolside. "He took it upon himself to teach us both how to swim," Isaac recalled. "He was really very, very nice."

Chris Eatough managed to stay within his family -- he lived with his mother's sister in New York. He went to school at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts, where as a Brit he was quickly enlisted to play on the soccer team. The team captain that first year was a skinny senior with a crooked smile named George Bush.

Eatough, a retired construction supervisor, recalls Bush as a friendly, athletic guy who was well liked. His impression of Bush was enhanced in 1984 when, after attending his 40th reunion, he wrote to the then vice president asking to tour the White House. Bush not only arranged the visit, but rearranged his schedule to see Eatough and his wife for 15 minutes at the White House.

Alastair Horne, a prominent British historian, recalls a similar experience in New York, where he was taken in by U.S. Rep. Hamilton Fish. Horne listened to heated debates between Fish, an ardent isolationist, and his daughters, equally strident interventionists. During the school year, Horne attended Millbrook, an exclusive, upstate New York academy, where his roommate was William F. Buckley Jr. The two boys would argue over the Soviet Union -- with Buckley even then accentuating the negative.

"It hugely influenced my life, on the whole for the better," Horne recalled. "It certainly widened my horizons in all kinds of ways."

For others, like the Mathews children, it was a more ordinary American existence -- but still very different from what they had known in England. Clifford Mathews, then 12, was sent to the home of William and Janet Matthews in Glendale, Ohio, near Cincinnati. His two sisters, Sheila, 10, and Dinah, 5, wound up with a family in a nearby town. A few years later, when that family moved, the girls too wound up at the Matthews home.

William Matthews was a senior executive at Procter & Gamble and the children led an affluent, comfortable life, including horseback riding and trips to Florida. There was some food rationing, but nothing like the enforced, daily hardship that people in England suffered.

It was hard coming back to England. To celebrate their return, Grace Mathews opened a small, carefully kept can of sardines and served them on toast. She saw it as a special treat -- but the kids, used to American affluence, were stunned.

Janet Matthews, now 94, who traveled from Ohio with some of her children to attend the reunion, said it was painful to part with her English foster children. "I never dreamed I would see them again," she said. "But when Cliff wrote to us that he wanted {to come} back, my husband wrote him a masterful letter suggesting he ought to stay home, that the whole thing would have been a failure if we took him away from his real home."

Nonetheless, Clifford and Dinah eventually returned to the United States, married Americans and settled there. The Mathews family, said Jocelyn Statler, was rescued from the narrow provincialism of a small English town, living instead in what she called "an uneasy disequilibrium poised between two cultures. I think we do, however, enjoy the disequilibrium."