WASHINGTON - Vera is certain that it began with the red dress. London in the waning months of World War II was so dark and dreary. She was just 18, and sick of the anti-barrage balloons that blotted out the sun, sick of carrying the smelly rubber gas mask.
One day, a flash of color brought her to a halt outside a 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 Cracknell 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 a year’s worth of clothing rations and took the 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 condo near Leesburg, Va., Charles Long recalls the moment with tender conviction: ‘‘It was love at first sight, absolutely.’’
With her raven hair, porcelain skin and pale green eyes, 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 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. In the next five months, 20 converted warships would be in perpetual motion across the Atlantic, a floating procession of brides. Reporters and newsreel cameras greeted the first ‘‘petticoat pilgrims,’’ as the British media had dubbed them.
An act of Congress had waived immigration quotas for the war brides. Across America the women scattered, becoming Iowa farmwives who grew ‘‘tomahtoes’’ or New Yorkers who muttered ‘‘oy vey’’ with British accents. They slipped quietly into their new lives and were forgotten.
FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE
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 airraid 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. Parents bid their daughters farewell at the train station. The girls then reported to processing camps, where there were forms to fill out in triplicate, 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 camps, cradles were made out of orange crates. Babies had to be at least 3 months old to travel, and women could not be more than seven months pregnant. 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 wartorn 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.
The Argentina entered New York Harbor at 2:30 that February morning. Joan remembers the brides rushing to the deck, shivering in the wind to catch the first glimpse of their new homeland. ‘‘Can you imagine after four years of darkness what it was like to see the Statue of Liberty all lit up for us?’’ Joan’s voice cracks at the memory. ‘‘It was such a beautiful sight.’’
Walter was waiting for her in Virginia, where they would be living with his parents. She called him from the Norfolk train station.
The teen bride is 78 now. She lost Walter two years ago this April. Their two children, and even the grandchildren, are grown and gone. A greatgrandchild is on the way. ‘‘I’m kind of alone here,’’ says Joan. She feels him beside her still, in the pool where he swam 12 laps a day, or when she misplaces something and hears herself ask, “Well, Walter, where is it?” and then it always turns up.
‘‘Who would think all this would come out of war?’’ she wonders.
THE DANCE CONTINUES
The stereo is blaring ‘‘Yes, We Have No Bananas.’’ The septuagenarians dance a conga line through the hostess’ living room, a Carmen Miranda in silver lame kicking up her heels with the Groucho Marx surgeon who keeps squirting people in the face with water from his gagsyringe. S omething that sounds like china crashes to the floor. ‘‘There’s trifle!’’ the hostess carols, hoping to herd revelers into the dining room, where the table offers potluck testimony to English culinary arts involving unset Jell-O and whipped cream.
The annual Guy Fawkes Day costume party in November — commemorating a foiled plot to burn the British Parliament — is a rip-roaring success. The war brides beam. The small clubs they formed out of newlywed loneliness became cultural touchstones polished smooth over the decades. They hold garden parties each June to celebrate the queen’s birthday.
The Trans-Atlantic Brides and Parents Association began even before the last war bride ship had left England in 1946, formed by families who despaired that they would never see their daughters again. The young women came largely from workingclass homes, and travel was prohibitively expensive. Telephones were rare and overseas calls exorbitant.
As the association grew ever larger, a heartsick father had an idea: The families could charter flights to the States. The parents’ networking in turn connected the lonely brides to one another, and social clubs began popping up across the U.S.
When Doris Amsbaugh put a notice in her community paper asking if there were any other British war brides in Vienna, Va., who wanted to get together for a proper cup of tea, she was surprised when a dozen women responded. Vera Long was among them. Hearing everyone else’s stories over the years piqued Vera’s curiosity so much that she wrote a history project about the brides while studying at George Mason University, and turned it into a book a few years ago. Tentative fingers gently brush each young face when the women gaze at the old pictures Vera collected.
There’s Patricia, didn’t she look just like Ingrid Bergman? She’s dead, and this couple here, the husband is dead and Eunice moved closer to her daughter out West. That’s Margaret; she has dementia, and here’s Annie the Scottish girl; she died this past year.
They cross winter’s seas together still. Baby showers have given way to funerals.
No one kept statistics on how many of the marriages lasted, though Vera’s research led her to hypothesize that the divorce rate was around 8 percent. Return passage to England was funded by the government for only one year after arrival, and for mothers whose children were American citizens, going home could mean losing custody in a U.S. divorce. Some women got off the bride ships to find that their GI husbands were already married. Others found themselves isolated in rural areas, or married no longer to a dashing soldier but to a trapper living in a cabin with no running water or electricity.
‘‘I think people were tougher then, and you accepted what you had,’’ says Doris. She remembers how the stress made her hair fall out for the first two years here. Only a few war brides remain in her club.
Doris’ husband, Jack, converted their Vienna basement into a faux English pub where they threw parties. ‘‘But after Jack died, I didn’t much like coming down here alone,’’ Doris says. She is 86 now. Jack has been gone nearly 20 years.
Those whose wartime romances did endure describe love as a simple truth.
Charles never proposed properly, Vera reveals over tea in her dining room. Charles thought sending her cheery instructions to fill out the seven-page application required by the Army made his intentions clear.
‘‘What cheek!’’ Vera declares.
What about that first date? Charles counters. Vera never showed up.
‘‘As I got ready to go, this other American who was always bringing things brought this huge case of strawberry preserves,’’ she explains.
‘‘Remember, I brought you lemon drops,’’ Charles says.
‘‘You brought me lemon drops, yes.’’
They still love to play the music from those days. Vera turns 80 next month, but the four British groups she belongs to keep her busy. She worries, though, about Charles. He is 87, and having trouble getting around. She puts Glenn Miller on.
‘‘Come on, come on, come on,’’ Vera will plead. ‘‘Dance with me.’’ Charles will shuffle into her arms, and they hold each other close, the handsome soldier and his girl in the red dress, knowing each step by heart.