Cardboard wedding cakes and parachute-silk dresses: lessons from the WWII war brides

Lyn and Ben's weddingIt was two years ago at the reunion of the World War Two War Brides Association in Boston that Duncan and I first began our research into the fascinating subject of British war brides – and now, as the 2014 reunion draws to a close in St Paul, our book has finally hit the shelves in the US.

When we arrived in Boston that summer, I was still mourning the loss of my grandmother Margaret Denby, who had died a few months earlier. Before she passed away she told me the story of her first marriage to an American GI – my real grandfather, whom I had never met – and I made a promise to her that I would write a book about her one day.

When we got to Boston we had no idea just how welcoming the WBA would be to us, and how much we would be made to feel like part of a big family. Speaking to other members of the organisation really helped fill in for me what it must have been like for my grandmother to come to this country as a young woman in the 1940s. Sitting in on the ‘My Stories’ sessions, in which the brides record their experiences of coming to America, and conducting our own interviews with WBA members, we heard some incredible accounts.

One thing my grandmother had told me was how wonderful it was when all the GIs turned up in Britain in 1942. She was lucky enough to get a job as a typist at the US Army Headquarters in Mayfair, and said she had the time of her life, surrounded by handsome American officers.

But I learned at the reunion that not all British women were so taken with the Americans straight away. Rae Zurovcik, who ended up being one of the main women featured in the book, told us how she initially thought the Americans were terrible show-offs. Her brothers had warned her off the GIs, who were considered ‘over paid, over sexed and over here’. Rae was working in the ATS (the British women’s army) during the war, and when one GI saw her in her uniform he shouted out: ‘Oh look it’s the ATS – the American Tail Supply!’ Rae’s response was to sock him in the jaw.

IMG_4505We heard from many brides how hard it was to organise wartime weddings. Although there are some beautiful wedding dresses on display at this year’s reunion in St Paul, we heard that a lot of women had to get married in a borrowed or rented gown because of clothes rationing. Lyn Patrino told us that she had seen a German pilot shot down and killed near her house in Southampton, and how the neighbours rushed out to collect the parachute for the silk – although it still had blood on it, a woman said she would just bleach it out. Lyn was offered some parachute silk herself, but said she could never get married in material that she knew someone had died in, so she got married in a plain blue dress and jacket instead – even though she was rather disappointed at not having a big white wedding.

Margaret Moody told us how lucky she was that her father was friends with the local baker, so he agreed to make her a wedding cake, something not many war brides were able to have. In fact, some brides simply had a cardboard cut-out of a cake sitting on the table. Margaret’s uncles and aunts also clubbed together their ration coupons to buy food for the wedding buffet. They even had home-made ice cream, which was a real treat with sugar under ration.

After D-Day, couples were often separated until the war ended, and waiting to hear whether your husband had made it must have been excruciating. Joan James told us how she fell pregnant shortly after her marriage, only to hear, once she was three months’ pregnant, that her husband was missing in action. She endured weeks of worry, until, just a month before she was due to give birth, she got a letter in the mail that an American serviceman had forwarded from her husband, saying he had been languishing in a German prisoner of war camp and was wounded but thankfully still alive.

Almost everyone we spoke to recalled the terrible sea-sickness that brides suffered on the boats coming over. Joy Beebe had a particularly harrowing voyage – she was on a small Liberty ship called the SS Marine Falcon, which got caught in a storm and split down the middle. Tables went flying and people broke arms and legs, and the passengers spent the rest of the voyage ankle-deep in water. The captain had to speed up in order to make it to New York before they sank, so thanks to the disaster they made extremely good time.

Queen MaryMany brides told us how they felt seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time and how everyone rushed up on deck to catch a glimpse of it. For some it was incredibly moving and joyful, for others it brought home the daunting reality that they were now entering a new country and embarking on a new life. However, Irene Maio told us that she missed the moment completely because she was still feeling so sea sick that she couldn’t bring herself to leave her cabin – in fact, she spent the entire voyage down there, surviving on dry crackers and apples.

A few women were lucky enough to skip the boat journey and take a plane instead. Jean Borst told us that her husband Bill insisted she fly over with Pan Am, because he had heard horror stories of babies dying from dysentery on the ships to New York.

Many brides found it hard adjusting to life in a new country, especially those who moved to rural areas or places where the climate was very different to back home. My grandmother went to rural Georgia, and all she knew about it before she arrived was what she’d seen in Gone with the Wind. She was pretty shocked when she realised what a tough life a farming family in the 1940s had. She also told me how uncomfortable she felt living in a town that was so fiercely segregated, and where the black residents would step into the gutter to make way for her when she walked down the street.

Although my grandmother’s marriage didn’t work out and she returned to the UK, she stayed in touch with her husband’s family for many years, writing letters and exchanging photographs. When her sister-in-law, Judy, turned 80, she asked to come over to England to see Margaret for her birthday.

But not all women clicked with their new families straight away. Catherine Fogarty told us how, like many war brides, she had to deal with a difficult mother in law. The woman told Catherine’s husband: ‘You know, there are plenty of American girls – you don’t have to marry a Scottish girl!’ Relations got so bad that Catherine was on the verge of taking her children and going back to England, but her husband stuck up for her, telling his mother: ‘She’s from Scotland, she’s never been in America, she does things different from what you do, so please, leave her alone.’ After that, Catherine agreed to stay in America after all.

Margaret Moody’s mother in law, meanwhile, was very cool towards her, and always brought out a photograph of the American girl that her son had been engaged to before the war.

War Brides in BostonEveryone told us how much the network of local war bride groups around the country had helped them deal with homesickness and find new friends when they were settling into their lives in America. Jean Borst and Lyn Patrino for example met on a bus when Jean overheard Lyn’s English accent and asked her if she was a war bride – when she said yes, she invited her to join the local group in San Jose, and Lyn has been going to it ever since.

When I heard how important the groups were to people here, I couldn’t help wishing my grandma could have found such a group when she came over to the States, because perhaps then she wouldn’t have felt so alone. But for me, it’s been a wonderful experience joining the WBA. I’ve been to three reunions now, and although my own grandmother is gone, I feel like I’ve found a whole crowd of new grandmothers. I even discovered to my surprise that I had a cousin in the WBA – Margie Franz. When she came up to Duncan in Boston and asked if he might know her cousin Edmund Cox, since he lived in London, she was probably just making polite conversation. She was flabbergasted when he turned around and said yes – in fact, Edmund was my second cousin. Margie’s mother was cut off by her own family for marrying an American, but now she has reconnected with our family through Facebook.

The book we ended up writing focuses on my grandma’s story, as well as that of Rae Zurovcik, Lyn Patrino, and a member of the Daughters of the British Empire called Sylvia O’Connor. But we could never have written it without the help of everyone who shared their stories with us. Those whose stories didn’t make it into the book we are gradually adding to this blog, so please check back here over the coming weeks.

Huge thanks are due to former WBA president Diane Reddy, who helped us when we were in Boston, and to Michele Thomas, WBA member and war brides researcher (www.uswarbrides.com). Michele helped find my grandfather’s army records and my grandmother’s ship record, through which I was able to track down a fellow war bride who had actually been on board the boat with my grandmother in 1944, and ask her what the voyage was like.

Duncan and I have spent two years on this project, but for Michele, capturing war brides’ stories is a lifelong mission. Hopefully we have made a small contribution to what is an enormous and endlessly fascinating subject.

Nuala Calvi

 

‘He told me he was going to marry me the day we met’: Californian war bride Jean Borst

Jean BorstJean Borst grew up in Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire, England, and her schooldays were often interrupted by air raids sirens going off when German bombers offloaded their remaining bombs on the way back from blitzing London.

Her father had died when she was young and her mother became the breadwinner for the family, serving as a wardrobe mistress at a nearby film studio where she worked on Alfred Hitchcock movies.

Jean was just 17 and working as a hairdresser when she met her future husband Bill Michaels through her older sister who was dating a G.I. When her sister’s date came to collect her one evening, he brought a friend with him, and Jean was allowed to tag along to make up a four.

They went to a local pub called The Cherry Tree, where the Americans impressed the local girls with his Jitterbug dancing. “Bill was a very good dancer and all the girls kept coming up and saying ‘Can we dance with him now?’” recalls Jean.

Like many G.I.s, he also had more confidence than his English counterparts.
“British boys were a lot quieter,” says Jean. “The four of us walked back home and on the way he told me he was going to marry me! When I laughed at him, he just said, ‘You’ll see.’

“Afterwards my sister asked me what I thought of her boyfriend’s friend. I said, ‘He’s crazy!’”

Bill wasn’t crazy, however, and after several more dates at The Cherry Tree and the local picture house, Jean and he were engaged.

Then, of course, he had to convince Jean’s mother.

“He spent a lot of time talking to my mother,” she says. “He figured he had to win her over.”

Another challenge was finding the material for a wedding dress, at a time when clothing was severely rationed in England. In the end, the American family had to come to the rescue. “Bill’s mother sent me some beautiful white satin for the wedding dress, and I had it made by a dressmaker’s in Welwyn Garden City,” recalls Jean. “It was a full-skirted dress with long sleeves and a high neckline.”
Bill was determined to stay in England until their first child arrived, but unfortunately he was sent home to be demobbed in July 1946 and missed the birth. Jean didn’t join him until three months later.

She flew Pan American, because Bill had heard horror stories of babies dying from dysentery on the troop ships to New York.

“I got very emotional at the airport saying goodbye,” recalls Jean, “and I still remember so well my mother trying to control her feelings.”

The couple initially went to stay with Bill’s parents in Omaha. If Jean had any worries about how her new family would feel about her, they were laid to rest as soon as they reached the house. “When we arrived his father came down the steps, gave me a big hug and said, ‘Welcome, little girl.’”

Bill’s mother, meanwhile, introduced her to the rare pleasures of clothes shopping. “I’d been through coupon rationing, and to be able to just go out and buy a new outfit was incredible.”

There were other things to get used to – not least the abundance of food and some strange new dishes to try “I had to learn to eat corn,” recalls Jean. “No one at home ever ate that. And fried chicken.”

And then there was the homesickness. “I missed my family first and foremost, and we couldn’t make a lot of phone calls in those days. I missed hearing English voices. Bill said you’ll be able to go home in two years, but in two years I was already expecting baby number two, so life got in the way. We had six children all together so I was quite busy!”

Bill stayed in the air force and the family moved around a lot. Then he decided to leave the service while he was still young enough to have another career, and he and Jean planned to settle in California. They had chosen a house in San Jose and were about to complete on it when Bill had a sudden heart attack and died.

“Bill had a sister in San Francisco, and like his parents she was a wonderful person and she was there for me,” says Jean. “The loan hadn’t gone through on the house and I had no credit to my name, so with Bill gone I wouldn’t have been able to keep the house. But she agreed to be guarantor.”

Jean knew she could have returned to England at that point, but “I never considered moving back,” she says. “My life was here. Yet to this day I still feel very English. I had tears running down my face at the Queen’s Jubilee.”

Seven years after Bill’s death, Jean found love again with George Borst, whom she met at a widow and widowers’ group of the British American Club in California. They were happily married until his death in 1982.

These days Jean is kept busy with her six grandchildren and regular meetings of her war brides group in San Jose, California, which has 80 members who are a mixture of war brides and war babies.

 

Bomb blasts and a bag of oranges: war bride Irene Maio

IreneIrene Maio grew up in southeast London, near the Old Kent Road, and during WW2 she worked at a printing company making information leaflets for the troops.  She was evacuated from her home after a 1000lb bomb fell in the back yard – mercifully it didn’t explode, but the family were not allowed to return to the premises until after the war.

Irene and a friend of hers were in Hyde Park one day when they spotted a couple of GIs laughing at the people at Speaker’s Corner. The GIs had a bag of oranges and a bag of sweets with them – both rare treats during the days of rationing. One of the GIs, named Joseph, offered Irene the bag of oranges, while his companion gave her friend the sweets. They got chatting and before long Irene and Joseph were courting.

Her parents were initially a little suspicious as he came from an Italian-American family and Italy was an enemy country in the war, but once they met him they soon came around.  Nonetheless, Irene’s father tried to put Joseph off marrying her, telling him she was a ‘spoiled brat’ who didn’t know how to cook.  But it did nothing to dent his enthusiasm and before long they were married. Joseph proudly told all his friends that his wife was a spoilt brat!

On the journey to America Irene suffered appalling seasickness. She stayed in her cabin the whole time, eating nothing but crackers and apples. When the boat neared New York and the other brides rushed up on deck to see the Statue of Liberty, she felt so ill she could muster no enthusiasm and didn’t bother going to look at it.

But once back on dry land things worked out well for her. After a brief period in New York staying with some of Joseph’s friends, they set off for Duluth, Minnesota, where she lives to this day.

Irene was an only child, and when she first came over to America her mother suffered a nervous breakdown  – like many parents, she couldn’t bear losing her child to another country, at a time when transatlantic travel was simply out of reach for most families and even phone conversations were incredibly expensive. Later in life, however, after Irene’s father had died, her mother came over to America to live with Irene and Joseph.  She arrived at the age of 75 and spent the last five years of her life in the United States.

Irene and Joseph had two children together, a son and a daughter. She was widowed a few years ago, after 63 happy years with her GI husband.

Irene spoke to Minnesota Public Radio about her experiences as a GI Bride – you can listen to the interview here

 

GI Brides – the US book tour

From 2nd to 16th September, Duncan and Nuala will be back in the United States, celebrating the release of the US edition of GI Brides. You can catch them at the following locations, where they will be speaking about the 60-odd war brides they interviewed during their research, and signing copies of the book:

2pm, 6 Sept – Saint Paul, MN: Merriam Park Library

7pm, 8 Sept – Chicago, IL: Anderson Books

6.30pm, 10 Sept – Akron, OH: Akron-Summit County Public Library

7pm, 11 Sept – Cincinnati, OH: Joseph-Beth bookstore

3pm, 12 Sept – Pittsburgh, PA: McKeesport Heritage Centre

2pm, 13 Sept – Baltimore, MD: Roland Park Library

The Welsh War Brides of Tiger Bay

In this guest blog, Dr. Valerie Hill-Jackson shares some of the stories she discovered in the course of researching her documentary Tiger Brides: Memories of Love and War from the GI Brides of Tiger Bay

When I married my husband, Bowen Keiffer Jackson, Jr. (Special Agent, FBI, retired), he knew very little about where his mother Patricia Ann Ismail was from or that she was a Welsh War Bride of mixed ethnicity – half Somali and half Welsh. He does recall sweet childhood memories in which, in her gentle British accent, she would request ‘a cup of tea’ most evenings. Bowen Jr. and I went to Wales in 2008 to visit Patti’s home to find out more about her background, wartime experiences and romance. I was driven to uncover the hidden history of this beautiful war-time bride from Sophia Street in Tiger Bay.

Patricia Ann Ismail Jackson, 1946

Tiger Bay is a half square mile, tight-knit, inclusive, multi-cultural community in Cardiff, Wales. It is internationally renowned as one of the most diverse communities in the United Kingdom; settled in the late nineteenth century by sailors from around the world, who married White women from the British Empire. As a family we went back in 2013 with our teenage daughter, and for several months I interviewed Tiger Bay residents, GI brides and their children, local historians, World War II experts and anyone else who could help me piece together the story of wartime Black GIs and their brides.

Although British marriages to white GIs are well documented, history has ignored those of black GIs, particularly their marriages to black or multi-ethnic British women. Tiger Bay war brides travelled half way around the world for love. These seventy to one hundred Tiger Bay women may be one of the highest concentrations of war brides (per capita) from any geographic region to come out of the World War II tragedy. This is truly a cultural phenomenon!

It was not all smooth sailing for the brides and would-be brides as they waved goodbye to their GI husbands and partners after the war, some as late as the 1950s, and faced the prospect of leaving their families and travelling alone to an unknown new home in America. In many cases their parents’ own life stories will have given them courage – fathers from far-flung lands who had joined their first ship to Britain as teenagers and Irish or Welsh mothers who had suffered prejudice for marrying men of a different colour or creed, but found sanctuary and acceptance in Tiger Bay.

It is remarkable that any of the estimated 70-plus Tiger Bay marriages ever developed at all because the US Army did not leave its segregationist policies at home when black GIs were brought to Britain. As well as being assigned to separate bases from their white fellow soldiers, Black GIs were banned from visiting Tiger Bay. But love found a way and they developed methods of dodging the patrolling Military Police – usually with the help of local Tiger Bay residents – so they could visit the girls for whom they had fallen.

While many white British war brides were saddled with homesickness and embittered in-laws in a new country, the Tiber Bay war brides wrestled with the added burden of racism and discrimination. These women landed in America at the height of inequitable Jim Crow laws. Such practices as being forced to use separate drinking fountains, barred from schools and theatres, terrorized by the unchecked lynchings of black men, refused residence in ‘white’ neighbourhoods, denied decent jobs and a living wage, and blocked from access to the benefits of the GI Bill – were the daily lived realities of these Welsh beauties and their black veterans.

Having experienced the warmth and strength of the original Tiger Bay residents still living in what is now called Butetown, we grew to understand how that community gave Patti the determination to fight the racism and segregation she found in America. Patti and Bowen Keiffer Jackson Sr., a Technician Fifth Grade soldier in the US Army, were wed at the Cardiff Registry in April 1945. Bowen Sr. went to Belgium in late 1945 and they were reunited, after Patti’s long trip on the Queen Mary, in May 1946.

Patti married into a Civil Rights dynasty; she was the daughter-in-law of Dr Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson – the mother of the Civil Rights Movement and the President of the Baltimore Branch of the NAACP. Patti played a leading role in the Civil Rights Movement and the NAACP, paving the way for many of the freedoms people enjoy today. Patti and Bowen Sr. had four children together and eventually made their way to Pasadena, California. The pair divorced in the early 1960s and Patti remarried another black American veteran. Patti is survived by her four children, nine grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren.

Now Bowen and I can share Patti’s legacy with our children and grandchildren.

Another war bride, Margaret Norman Lassiter, married in the early 1950s when the second wave of Black GIs descended on Tiger Bay. By this time segregation in America’s army had ended and black soldiers were now stationed on Army, and Air Force bases around parts of the United Kingdom. When the word was out that Tiger Bay was filled with beautiful women of mixed ethnicity, it became a magnet for Black GIs and they descended on this community. Margaret’s husband John found unique ways to woo her through romantic gestures with candy bars, flowers, and clothes from America. John would also find ways to visit Margaret by driving military equipment from one US base in England to another.

But Margaret was slow to succumb to John’s advances. She found the guys who could dance, especially those from Philadelphia, more exciting. Eventually they both became smitten and were married in a simple service in Cardiff, but both families were not pleased by their union. Eventually, John was sent back to the United States, without his new bride, when his orders were finished. When John arrived home in Connecticut, his father expressed his fear that he and Margaret might be treated poorly by other Americans because Margaret, of mixed ethnicity, ‘looked’ white. Marriages between Whites and Blacks in the US were not legal during this time, and many whites could make life difficult for them and the extended family. John’s father convinced him not to send for Margaret and their son.

When Margaret received the telegram from John lamenting, ‘no hope, no job, it’s all a big mistake,’ that Tiger Bay spirit erupted and she scraped up some money from a friend, and her Cape Verdean grandfather, and made her way to Ellis Island with just a few dollars in her pocket and a baby in tow. They had a beautiful life of struggle, love and four children together. John passed away in early 2013 and Margaret’s eyes still well as she reminisces about him; she does not regret one day with John!

Margaret Norman Lassiter, c. 1950

Margaret Norman Lassiter, c. 1950

Patti and Margaret’s experiences, and the untold stories of four other Welsh girls of mixed ethnicity from Tiger Bay,  come under the spotlight in Dr Hill-Jackson’s new documentary Tiger Brides: Memories of Love and War from the GI Brides of Tiger Bay and in her forthcoming book, tentatively entitled Invisible: The Lost Tribe of Welsh War Brides from Tiger Bay (coming in 2015).

Dr Hill-Jackson is keen to hear from anyone with photographs, letters, diaries, memories or mementos relating to the GI brides from Tiger Bay or black soldiers stationed in Wales; specifically those who served in Cardiff or nearby in England. You can email her on dr.v.jackson@gmail.com.

Check out the trailer of the Tiger Brides documentary here (you have to input the password 5minpromo to view it).

 

Pauline Fraser – a dancer who became a GI bride

In this guest post, Louise Brass tells the story of Pauline Fraser, a GI Bride who she worked with on the memoir Presenting Pauline.

Pauline Fraser was on the first ship that left British shores for America carrying war brides who had fallen in love with American GIs during World War II. She was leaving behind a career on the London stage for a future that was uncertain, except for the promise of the life-long love of her new husband, Ray, a radar officer with the 392nd Bomber Group.

PaulinePauline’s theatre group entertained the troops in 1944, as they prepared for the D-Day invasion to liberate Europe. Ray attended one of those performances and he tracked Pauline down a year later at the Ambassadors Theater in London. After the show he waited for her at the stage door.

Their romance blossomed and marriage soon followed. But it meant that leaving England was inevitable for the young war bride.

It was a chilly February day in 1946 when Pauline waved goodbye to the crowds gathered on the docks of Southampton to see the young war brides off on their journey to the other side of the world. Despite smiling and waving, Pauline’s heart was breaking over what she was leaving behind: a devoted mother who was totally dedicated to seeing Pauline become a success as a young review artist and tap dancer; a name Pauline had made for herself on theatre bills with the likes of comedienne Hermione Gingold; and her friends in London town.

She didn’t know then, as the ship made its way toward America, that she would never see her mother again.

But her heart was also beating with expectation and love for her new husband, whom she had not seen for more than six months. He had been assigned to Washington, only two days after their wedding in a little country church in Lincolnshire.

As the ship, the SS Argentina, tossed and rolled across the freezing Atlantic Ocean, Pauline huddled under blankets seeking relief from seasickness, and trying to focus on good thoughts about the future, while her memories of being on the stage during the Blitz were hard to shake off. It wasn’t easy performing in London during those terrifying days and nights.

As long as there were people in the audience when the air raid sirens were screaming outside, the show had to go on. Talk about discipline! Once everyone had gone to a shelter, only then could the performers also leave the theatre.

Pauline had been born in England during the roaring ‘20s. She was an extra in some early Alfred Hitchcock movies, photographed for a number of national advertising projects, and appeared on the radio with Hughie Green and His Gang. As a young woman, she had entertained at London’s Windmill Theatre, in 1939. During the Blitz and as the war raged on, she also performed at the Ambassadors Theatre and the Cabaret Club.

It took a lot of courage—and a sense of humour—to keep her chin up and keep on dancing, while the Luftwaffe bombarded London mercilessly.

It was during the darkest days of the war that Pauline was asked by British Intelligence to do some spy-tracking. She didn’t hesitate, not thinking about the danger— she just thought it would be fun!

Giving up everything for marriage had not really been in her plans, but as the SS Argentina approached New York, and the seasickness subsided, she gained her strength and courage. When the ship docked, she discovered Ray had disobeyed orders. He couldn’t wait in the hotel with the other GIs, anxious for theirs brides to arrive. He went to the quayside and was standing at the foot of the gang plank when Pauline disembarked. Their photograph made the New York newspapers the next day.

Louise and Pauline

The couple set up home in Chicago, Illinois, where Pauline started a dance school, then moved to the suburbs to raise their son. He eventually presented them with a grandson.

Pauline didn’t give up the theater altogether, she directed and produced some community plays and musicals for charity events. And, she kept in touch with the people who had been on stage with her, keeping alive the light of hope for a better future during England’s darkest hours.

For more information on Pauline and her memoir, visit www.presentingpauline.com or www.outskirtspress.com/tapdancerhistory.

Who Do You Think You Are?

WDYTYAThe new edition of Who Do You Think You Are? magazine is out now, and its cover feature is a piece by Nuala about GI Brides and how she tracked down her own family history in the States.

If you’re after advice on how to discover your own GI bride ancestor’s story, the piece includes top tips on archives and online resources to help you in your research.

Nuala also discusses the experiences of the 70,000 wartime girls who became GI brides on the Who Do You Think You Are? podcast, where she is interviewed by production editor Steve Harnell – answering questions such as why those men in uniform proved so irresistible back in the 1940s.

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Ruth Murtaugh: GI Widow

In our three-month tour of the United States, we spoke to over 60 surviving GI Brides, and heard a very wide range of stories, some joyful and others tinged with sorrow. But of all the women we spoke to, none told a sadder tale than Ruth Murtaugh.

Ruth grew up in Kentish Town, North London and her childhood home was not a happy one. Her father had died when she was five, and by the time Ruth was 17, her mother was on her third marriage. The new husband had already molested his own children, and soon Ruth found herself having to fight off unwanted approaches.

Before she had even turned 18, Ruth ran away from home. She went to live in Bournemouth, where she soon met a dashing young sailor who worked on a submarine, the HMS Tempest.  They fell in love, married and Ruth found herself with a little baby girl. It seemed like her life had turned a corner.

But there was a superstition among Navy wives that if the wife saw a submarine going out, it would spell bad news for her husband. Ruth ignored the old wives’ tale, and waved her husband off as he departed for the Mediterranean.

It wasn’t the only bad omen. On Friday 13 February 1942, the Tempest was patrolling the Gulf of Taranto when she was hit by a depth charge fired by the Italian destroyer Circe. With her battery tanks burst, the submarine began to fill with Chlorine gas and was forced to surface. The Italians fired on her, and the Tempest sank to the bottom of the ocean. Only one in three British sailors survived the incident.

When Ruth learned that her husband had perished in the attack, she was devastated. She felt like she was poised on the edge of a nervous breakdown, but rather than give in to it she decided to fight back. ‘I’m going to have a go at Hitler too,’ she announced, taking herself down to the nearest recruiting office.

Ruth’s preference was to join the Women’s Royal Naval Service in memory of her husband, but when they told her they had no position for her, she signed up with the WAAFs, the women’s equivalent of the Air Force, instead. She was assigned to Balloon Command and soon found herself travelling all over the country.

During one posting in London, Ruth met a handsome young American man, who told her he was going to marry her. She replied that she wasn’t ready to marry again, but when the GI proved persistent, Ruth’s mother convinced her to accept him – he was a good man and very fond of Ruth’s young daughter. In November 1943, Ruth was walking down the aisle for the second time.

When D-Day came around the following June, Ruth’s second husband was sent over to Europe. She waited anxiously for news, and was relieved to hear that he had survived the initial invasion. When he returned to Britain on leave, the couple conceived a child, but Ruth’s husband was soon sent back to Germany. Before long, she received notice that he had died there.

Heartbroken by a second bereavement, Ruth didn’t know what to do with herself and her children. But when her American in-laws began writing to her, and suggesting she come over to the States, she decided that a new life in the new world was worth a shot. ‘I had nothing in England except my children,’ she told us. ‘So I thought, well why not?’

Ruth crossed the Atlantic on the SS Argentina, the very first vessel to offer official passage to war brides. She travelled to Rio Grande City in Texas, a desolate place just north of the Mexican border. ‘I thought I’d come to the end of the earth,’ she recalls wistfully. ‘It was like the last place God ever made, and he forgot to finish it.’

Ruth found her in-laws were kind to her, at least at first. But when she began to move on from the loss of her husband, things deteriorated between her and the family. ‘They thought I should be sitting at home crying for their son,’ she recalls. ‘Well, I’d lost two husbands now – I said I can’t do that again.’

In 1947 Ruth met a disabled veteran in a bar, and they got talking. He had served as a radio operator in the Air Force and survived three plane crashes during the war, leaving him badly crippled. When they met he was playing the piano, and he berated Ruth angrily for putting a coin in the Juke Box while he was playing. But the two of them got talking and soon Ruth had fallen in love for a third time. Within a year, the couple had married, and Ruth once again hoped she had found her happily ever after.

But it wasn’t to be. Less than five years into her marriage, Ruth’s third husband died, leaving her widowed yet again – this time for good.

Now 90, she still lives at the ‘end of the earth’ in Rio Grande City, although these days it’s more of a metropolis than a desert.

Despite all that has happened to Ruth, she considers herself fortunate – she has four wonderful daughters who mean the world to her. And she hasn’t lost her sense of humour either. In the retirement home where she now lives she recently met a US Marine. ‘Well I’ve already married the navy, the army and the air force,’ she told him, ‘and I’ve been looking for a marine!’

 

Books Are My Bag … and GI Brides is a Sunday Times bestseller

We had a great time at the Big Bookshop Party at Newham Bookshop on Saturday, as part of the nationwide Books Are My Bag campaign. We were joined by East End crime novellists Anya Lipska and Barbara Nadel, as well as sugar girls Gladys and Eva, who popped in to say hello and sign a few copies of The Sugar Girls.

It was a fantastic celebration and great to see so many people enjoying their local bookshop. The shop was festooned with balloons and orange bunting, and people were queuing out of the door to get their hands on discounted books, Books Are My Bag canvas totes, and, of course, the cupcakes that manager Vivian had kindly laid on.  There was even a raffle, and Gladys and Eva both walked away with prizes.

On the Sunday there were more celebrations as GI Brides made it into the Sunday Times bestsellers list. We were sharing the chart with the unstoppable ‘Street Cat Named Bob’, who must have sold more books than any other moggie in history.

 

Nuala on Irish radio with Sean Moncrieff

Yesterday, Nuala was a guest on Sean Moncrieff’s show on Newstalk radio in Ireland. She told Sean about her grandmother’s time in America as a GI bride, and how it came to inspire her to write the book. You can listen to the full interview here:

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