A soldier’s British bride sails to America, 1946

Posted: April 24, 2016 in Uncategorized

My sister, Marcia, was cleaning out some things the other day and came across a packet of WWII correspondence in a box she had brought from our parents’ home in Texas—our father was 111th  soldier Bill (aka Pinky) Johnson, the inspiration for this blog. He passed away in 2001. We were so excited! We had never found a single letter or card of theirs from the war.

Our mother, Nesta, met our dad at a dance held in her village for the 111th soldiers billeted at Albro Castle, which was about eight miles away. She was working as a nurse in Cardiff during the war and came home in March 1944 on one of her rare breaks. It had taken her most of the day to travel the 100 miles to West Wales. She had barely walked in the front door when her mother and a friend pushed her to go the dance that night. The friend said, “You must go, Nesta! You never know—you might meet your fate tonight!”

Truer words were never spoken.

We don’t know how much time they were able to spend together that March, but we do know that she had to return to work; then on June 7, the 111th left Wales for Normandy. It seems almost certain that the next time they saw each other was the following summer–more than a year later–when Dad was granted leave (by Capt. Art Brooks—thanks, Art!) to go from Germany to Wales to get married in late August 1945. (The unit took up a collection of $130 for their wedding present!) It appears Bill and Nesta had a only week for their wedding in Cardiff and a brief honeymoon in London before he had to return to Germany.  He shipped back to the States in October 1945. Then they faced another long separation–they wouldn’t see each other again until May 1946.

Mom and Dad wedding photo

Nesta and Bill, wedding portrait

The reason was that the “war brides” had to wait until all the U.S. troops got home before transport ships were available to take the wives to America. About 70,000 British women married American soldiers and sailors. There was only one other 111th soldier who married a Welsh girl, so far as we know: Edward Newmeyer, who met his wife while the unit was stationed in Barry, Wales.

For those interested in learning more about British war brides and American troops in South Wales during the war, please visit the website of our friend Glenn Booker, who has spent years researching and documenting the subject, at https://sites.google.com/site/usmilitaryinsouthwales/

Below are transcriptions of the two letters our mother wrote to her mother while on the brides’ ship. We think she did a good job of capturing the sights and sounds and emotions of those women as they slowly traveled across the Atlantic to a new and very different life; we thought you might find them interesting too. (This posting is quite a bit longer than my usual report, so please forgive the length.) Mom's ship to US

SS Jarrett M. Huddleston

At Sea, April 27th, 1946

My Dear Mamma,

Today we have been a week at sea. I hope you got all the letters and postcards I sent from camp and also the one I managed to get out from Southampton—I gave it to a WAC on Friday night. I sent 10 shillings and the points from camp too. I hope you get them okay. The reason why we’re taking so long to get there is that this ship is a hospital ship and can’t do more than 10 knots an hour, though we’re well past halfway now and hope to get there by Thursday or Friday.

Everyone is grand here. There are 500 brides aboard and hundreds of babies. We have to be up early each morning to look after the babies while the mothers are at breakfast. The food is wonderful—plenty of ices, chicken, etc., and jellies and loads of fruit each day. We’re getting used to three meals a day now and all the rich food. Bet our stomachs got a shock at first!

Sunday was the only day I was seasick—was better by evening though. We were all over the rail that day and some have been sick up to yesterday! Don’t think I’ll be seasick any more as I’ve got my sea legs okay now and am enjoying every minute of it. Lovely sunshine every day since we left. Isabel has been up on top deck since yesterday—I’ve been up every day.

We had two stowaways on board—they got on in Southampton, young kids about 17. They were put on a ship bound for England on Tuesday—we were all out watching the whole performance. It was breath-taking seeing them get into the little boats and go towards the other ship, which was just on the horizon—sometimes it disappeared from sight altogether in the waves! That day we saw three more ships. We heard the other night that a bride ship has passed us and is now in New York! That was the one Megan Evans was on, but they had a week’s stay at Tidworth. I’d rather be on the ship than still there. [Tidworth was a British Army camp near Salisbury, England, where many of the war brides received physicals, lectures on life in the U.S. and travel instructions.]

There are heaps of Welsh girls here. I’ve talked to dozens. But this Irish girl and I are together still. We’re on the lower deck—I sleep on the top bunk. We do have some fun in the nights with the girls. Some, though, are not very nice to know—have been caught flirting with the crew! So our room-mates went snooping last night to see things for themselves. Still, one can’t believe all the rumours we hear.

It’s lovely in the evenings—a soft breeze blowing and we can sit around on the top listening to the radio. Requests are played every night at 6-8 pm. I put one in yesterday for “Serenade for Strings.” The cinema is held in the mess room every night—some shows are quite good. Plenty of books to be had in the lounge and there’s also a library if we care to go.

We saw about a dozen swordfish jump out of the water the other day as they followed the ship along.

The mothers get the first chances and best of everything here and they are in the two top decks. They were selling lots of things we hadn’t seen for ages and of course less than half price to us at the P.X. There were beautiful compacts for $1.90 and numerous other things. The next day we queued up but they had all gone, although we had quite a few things—clips and powder and cream, the best for very little money. I think I know the money now because when I went yesterday I handed the right amount without hesitation—we’ve got to be quick here when there’s such a queue!

I’ll send you the ship’s paper when I reach there—we have one every day—the brides type and trace it—Clare Hamill is one of our gang and Eunice does the tracing—you’ll see their names on it when you get them. We are already 4 hours back now and right now it’s nearly 2 pm by me—that means 6 pm home. Been doing the garden?

I’m looking forward so much to arriving there now—I know how lucky I’ve been and by the talk I hear going around with these girls worrying, etc. about their husbands I know I’m lucky—and a very few are. Isabel is going to Oklahoma, on a farm. So was Megan (the one at Cardiff Infirmary), going farming to Nebraska.

April 29th

We were told today that we will be in N. York harbour at 7 am on Friday. Those going furthest will have to remain on board for three days—that will be the worst part of it. We’re just off Newfoundland today. It was very rough yesterday—a few got sick again but I managed to keep it all down. We had a smashing turkey dinner and fruit salad too. Ice cream each evening. There are four of us going to San Antonio. I met one yesterday from Liverpool. We passed another ship yesterday. Yesterday most of us gathered on the deck towards evening and had a sing-song. We were there to have some air because it’s no use staying down there when one feels sick. While we were there we sighted two sharks not far from the boat—they were monsters!

We’ll be glad to see a bit of land after all these days of nothing but sea and ship. Most of the days are sunny and right now we’re in our favourite spot on top deck again listening to the radio. We like watching the sunset. At times it’s really beautiful—pink and blue sky and the sun pops down and out of sight while we’re watching it—takes only about 5 minutes. We are already 5 hours back by today. Twilight doesn’t last long—gets dark around 6:30 pm.

I hope this isn’t too small for you to read—I don’t want it to weigh too much. The sea breezes and sunlight are giving us a tan—yesterday I washed my hair and dried it in the sun—quire blonde now! This is all for today—6 pm at home and 1 pm here. Been up to Grandma’s today? More later.

May 2nd

Nothing much has happened since I wrote last. We’ve been to some shows—the brides put on a talent show last night—was good, too—about 12-14 Welsh girls sang “Hen Wlad fy Nhadau” [the Welsh national anthem]” and “Ar hyd y nos.” There are about 30 Welsh girls here altogether.

Tomorrow is the day—we will be in the harbour at 7 am. Those going to New York will be off immediately but we go on Monday—the husbands have been notified by the Army not to meet us if they come from a distance, but they keep them informed of our arrival and we can’t phone them. On Saturday buses will take us who are left on the ship on a tour around New York and we will be seeing all the interesting places.

They are very good to us here and have been all along. Lovely food and plenty of it, all the best of everything and we’ll be going first class all the way. There’s a very nice girl in our berth—or ward—as there are 32 of us sleeping down here. She’s going to Dallas, Tex. And just now she gave me a book on San Antonio with all pictures and wants us to call on them whenever we can. She has a friend in San Antonio and will be going there often. She is extremely nice.

They are all busy here packing and hair dressing etc. etc. All very excited—quite a lot going off tomorrow. We’re getting up at 4:30 am to see the Statue of Liberty—the girls have asked me to put the alarm on!

The trip on the whole hasn’t been too bad—only of course we were rather unfortunate in having a slow ship, but it has gone by fairly quickly really. There’s too much noise going on here now between the girls and the radio to write much. They’re broadcasting some of the girls who took part in the talent show—some of one crooning!! Sounds awful over the radio.

Excuse this ending so scrappy. My love to Grandma and James and tell them I’ll write soon. Also Betty and kindest regards to Mr. Howells.

So until next time, cheerio! And fondest love,

Nesta

Mom and Tilla cropped

Nesta and her mother a few years earlier

S.S. J.M. Huddleston

New York Harbour, May 4th, 1946

My Dear Mamma,

I had already sealed the last letter before we entered New York but failed to get it mailed today as we had no stamps. Hope you got the cable okay. It has all been very exciting. We saw land first on Thursday night and were up at 5 am Friday to see the harbour—quite a size and sight to see at dawn. It was a beautiful sunny morning—the skyscrapers were very impressive although at a distance you couldn’t really judge how tall they actually were—as we found out today on a tour all around the city. We passed the Statue of Liberty, which is quite a few stories high and about 97 steps up to the arm that holds the torch. The statue itself was a greenish colour. We stared at it for ages.

Yesterday was a busy day—for those getting off and for us onlookers—we had a busy time just looking on! And watching the husbands coming to meet them. There was one poor girl in tears. Her husband couldn’t be found. The Red Cross couldn’t trace him, then she let out that she hadn’t heard a word from him since November—don’t know what happened to her. One from our camp at Tidworth left for home before we left for Southampton—we all think how silly she was—she’s really going to miss a lot. We just heard on the radio that the husband was suing for divorce from her, serves her right, too.

Today was a great day. We were taken on a tour of New York City and it really was a sight worth seeing. We had five buses. Among the places we saw were Broadway, Manhattan, Times Square, The White Way, a part of Harlem, all those Fifth Avenue stores, etc., etc. and the Columbia University—some size, 32,00 students—and the Empire State Building. We put our heads on the floor of the bus but still couldn’t see the top! But I had a good look at it from a distance, whew! What a height!

Plenty of everything in the shops. All the people stood watching and some smiled and waved at us in the streets. We saw the Hudson River and suspension bridge—the next largest to San Francisco— and New Jersey on the other side of the river. We saw all the select parts—Park Ave., etc. The women were all very smart. Most wore boxy coats and were very colourful and all had flowers in the hair or flowery hats, apparently because of Easter time, lovely shoes and stockings. The streets were not as crowded as London or Cardiff to that extent—only shoppers. No queues and plenty of fruit and eggs etc.—eggs 2shillings a dozen.

Looking through the front of the bus, what struck me the most was the colours—yellow, red, green and orange taxi cabs, all colour cars—green and yellow buses. Times Square was all twinkling with various lights in the big theatres and cinemas this afternoon—would have liked to have seen them at night. I think Broadway runs into the same street but we saw so much. Along one street there were cafes opening on the pavements like Paris. All the hotels (select ones) had a coverway leading up—green canvas tops.

Although all this was new to me, I didn’t feel as if I were in a strange country at all—just seemed like any English town only bigger. Something like London only the buildings taller. It’s funny but I feel just as I did at Tidworth. It was new and strange there and I seem to be quite as near to Wales here as I did when I was in England!! Sounds silly I know, but that’s how one feels away from Kilgerran. There everywhere seems far and hard to get to, but here it’s just the opposite!

We haven’t been able to cable or ring anyone up in the States except in emergency cases. Only yesterday we were allowed visitors—quite a few came. We haven’t been allowed off the ship at all—only this afternoon of course. There are a lot of civilian officers on board dealing with our transportation. Everything is so well organized down to the last safety pin. It really is wonderful the way they do things here. We got our labels just now. I leave at 11:15 am Monday and board the train at 1:30 pm. Will probably be in San Antonio on Wednesday. I’m longing to get there now and to see Bill. It’s getting more empty here now, quite a lot have left. We saw one bride with her husband in the city this afternoon! Isabel and Betty (Dallas) are on the same train as I am.

We all get along well with one another—it’s just like being in the army! The Americans we have seen have really been wonderful to us. They are all so nice and a grand people. No class or petty snobbery here, everyone cheerful and plenty of wisecracks.

Well, I must finish this now, but there will be more later. This radio is on with all the adverts before news and everything! There was a plane writing Pepsi-Cola in the sky.

My love to Grandma and James and all at home.

Cheerio! Fondest love,

Nesta

 

 

 

 

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Comments
  1. Linda Campbell says:

    Oh Andrea, I am so happy for you and your sister to have come across these treasures. Reading them was like being beside her as she wrote. So glad they were all treated so well by the U.S. And that our people made them feel welcome.

    I can’t believe how brave those women were to leave their homes and families and travel to a new land not knowing what the future held for them. True pioneers in their own right.

    Now we can all see where you got your own delightful writing skills.

    Thanks so much for sharing. Hope there are more to come.

    Best to you and Ed.

    Linda

  2. StephieD says:

    Wow! How priceless! Felt like I was there. Great to get an insight into Grandma’s life back then…I would never have guessed. I’m so glad Marcia found these!!

  3. LOUISE BROOKS says:

    What a wonderful find for you and your sister!!

  4. jraisler@tampabay.rr.com says:

    WHAT MEMORIES WERE BROUGHT UP REGARDING THE PAST, MUST HAVE BEEN A REAL EXPERIENCE FOR HER, WONDERFUL…SO NICE READING OF ANOTHER’S POST WAR EXPERIENCES……….THANKS FOR INCLUDING ME……………….I DO THINK I HAVE MY VIRUSES ON THE RUN, HOPE IT KEEPS UP………..JOHN R

  5. Mary says:

    You must feel so connected to your Mother after reading these letters. How lucky to have found them.

  6. Theresa Stanhaus says:

    beautiful story. Thank you for sharing it!

  7. Franklin Wise says:

    Ande: I thoroughly enjoyed your mom’s letters to “mamma. Thanks for sharing them. She faced that journey with great courage and really captured the journey…which must have been daunting to say the least.

    Frank

  8. Kay McAnally says:

    Andy,

    Thank you and Marcia for sharing your mother’s amazing adventure! What a great story teller Nesta was – just like her daughter Andrea and and granddaughter Stephanie. I loved traveling with Nesta every minute of her journey to the new world and couldn’t help thinking how brave her mother Tilla was to support her in her life’s adventure. I have always felt that Tilla believed in love. She made a huge sacrifice by encouraging Nesta to leave Wales and to live her life to the fullest. To read of Nesta’s wonder, joy and dreams of life with Bill must have made Tilla glow with happiness in the knowledge that her personal sacrifice meant a bright future for her daughter.

    Uh oh. I feel another book coming on…

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