They were the largest group of female migrants in American history – the hundreds of thousands of young women who travelled to the United States in the aftermath of World War Two to spend the rest of their lives with the GIs they had met during wartime.
But unlike other immigrants, the war brides weren’t drawn by the prospect of life in a more prosperous country, or seeking refuge from dangers back home. As Jean Borst, one of 70,000 women who arrived from the United Kingdom in 1946, put it, “We didn’t come here because we were poor and hungry and wanting to be free. We came for the love of an American serviceman.”
That love had blossomed in countries all over Europe, and as far afield as Australia and Japan – pretty much everywhere, in fact, that the U.S. Army sent its men. And it had done so despite stiff opposition from the authorities.
During the war, American troops were expressly discouraged from getting too involved with local girls. The two million GIs stationed in Britain during the build up to D-Day had been issued with a book advising them of the perils of romance while they were on active service. Despite the “special relationship” between the two countries, relations with local girls weren’t supposed to get too special.
But of course such advice was rarely heeded, and with American camps popping up all over the country it was only natural that young men and women in such close proximity soon felt the tug of attraction. To the GIs, British women – who had already lived through the Blitz and had seen something of the war first hand – seemed tougher and more mature than the girls they had dated back home. These, they felt, were potential partners who could understand what they were going through.
From the girls’ perspective, meanwhile, the GIs were almost irresistible. Compared to British lads (a great many of whom were off fighting abroad in any case), the Americans were generally polite and courteous – the culture of dating in the United States meant they had more experience interacting with young women, and knew how to make them feel special. They were paid up to five times what men of equivalent rank in the British Army earned, so they were able to lavish their girlfriends with flowers, chocolate, nylon stockings, and other luxuries almost impossible for civilians to get hold of.
And then there were their uniforms – smart and figure-hugging, they were much more stylish than the old-fashioned serge of the British Army. To many girls, whose only previous experience of Americans had been on the silver screen, they really did seem like Hollywood movie stars.
“They were so glamorous and they were so nice to us,” recalls British war bride Avice Wilson. “They made us feel like pretty girls, even if we weren’t. And they danced! It wasn’t the same dances we were doing, old-fashioned dancing. It was Jitterbugging. We were all enchanted.”
The enchantment was mutual, and many fairy-tale proposals soon followed – in particular as the Army geared up for the invasion of Normandy and the GIs realized that their chances of a happy ending beyond the war were far from guaranteed. But as thousands of couples prepared to say “I do,” the U.S. Army threw a spanner in the works, instituting a lengthy and often distressing investigative process before permission for a wedding would be granted. It involved more than a dozen forms, many months of waiting, and the interrogation of both prospective bride and groom by the military authorities.
Many women were shocked at the way they were treated by their fiancés’ commanding officers, who often suspected them of being freeloaders just looking for a ticket to the U.S.A.. When Pamela Delleman, from London, was asked why she wanted to get married she replied, “Well for one thing, we’re in love.” Her boyfriend’s CO replied wryly, “That don’t mean a thing.”
Ultimately, however, it did – and despite the obstacles, in time hundreds of thousands of American soldiers all over the world were walking their fiancées down the aisle. When the war came to an end, the U.S. Government agreed to transport the women to the United States at no cost, and granted them non-quota immigration status under the War Brides Act.
From January 1946, ships full of brides began arriving in New York and San Francisco.
At the time, many doubted that these wartime relationships would last, but although there were some nasty surprises for women whose husbands had not exactly been honest about the life they were signing up for – one had been told that her husband worked “in oil” and was dismayed to find he was only a gas-pump attendant – the majority stood the test of time, and the divorce rate among the GI marriages was actually lower than the national average.
Last year Vera Long and her husband Charles, who met at an American Red Cross club in London just before D-Day, celebrated their seventieth wedding anniversary. Despite leaving behind her family and friends when she came to America in 1946, Vera has never had any regrets.
“I married the man I loved,” she says, “and we still love each other. We just wanted to be together.”
Duncan Barrett studied English at Cambridge and now works as a writer and editor, specializing in biography and memoir. He is a co-author (with Nuala Calvi) of "GI Brides: The Wartime Girls Who Crossed the Atlantic for Love," (William Morrow.) For more stories, pictures and audio, visit www.gibrides.com.