The American War Bride Experience

GI Brides of World War II

Sunday, March 26, 2006 by Katy Muldoon: 503-221-8526;
This is a 5 part series by Katy Muldoon.
She interviewed Barbara Brisbin, Angela Barnett, Joan Patterson and Sunny Sansing

Love, War & an Act of Congress

They met in wartime, then fell in love. And though it's been 60 years since the War Brides Act passed, the women who followed U.S. GIs home after World War II remember the romances -- and sacrifices -- as if they were yesterday.

A glance, maybe. Or a dance.

The romances started in the usual ways, but under the most unthinkable of circumstances: in the throes of World War II. From England to France and Italy to Australia in the early 1940s, tens of thousands of allies in war became allies in love.

With two words -- "I do" -- American GIs and the young lovelies with the lilting accents they met in London ballrooms or on the streets of Melbourne began to write life stories that would cross oceans and datelines, cities and prairies, cultures and religions.

Congress passed the War Brides Act in December 1945, easing immigration laws and rolling out the welcome mat for one of the nation's most unusual waves of immigrants: one overwhelmingly female and motivated by the most powerful magnet -- love.

Within months, a military movement dubbed Operation War Bride began delivering to U.S. shores the women who'd won American soldiers' hearts abroad. GI brides began arriving by the boatload 60 years ago, scattering from New York suburbs to Detroit slums and Oregon ranches.

Of those who remain, many are widowed and in their 80s. Although six decades have passed, memories of those intense days seem sharply etched. When the women tell their stories, details spill as easily as tea from a pot.

Sources vary widely on how many foreign women married U.S. GIs. The World War II War Brides Association estimates that as many as 1 million women from 50 countries wed Americans between 1942 and 1952, during the war or the occupation that that followed.

Germans, Japanese and other women whose countries had faced off against the Allies met such powerful challenges as language barriers and racism when they moved to their soldier-husbands' homes in the United States. But in some respects, the estimated 60,000 to 70,000 women from Great Britain, and 7,000 or so from Australia and New Zealand, who formed the front flank of arriving war brides paved the way.

They met obstacles of their own.

For one thing, those U.S. GIs seemed attractively homogeneous overseas: sharp in their pressed uniforms and trim haircuts, with important and even heroic jobs to do. But when their brides stepped off ships or the so-called bride trains to catch the first glimpse of their beloveds in this country, some discovered men altogether different from the fellows they'd first met.

Lieutenants turned out to be loggers. Majors weren't officers, but insurance salesmen. Some who'd seemed to swim in cash during the war struggled for it in peacetime. Others, who'd been romantics overseas, were abusive on the home front.

Many brides were sorely homesick. That was true for Jenel Virden's English mother, who ached to return to Cambridge after moving to her husband's place, without indoor plumbing, in middle-of-nowhere Kellerton, Iowa. Like most of the war brides, she didn't have the money to return home.

Finally, pregnancy persuaded her to stay, says Virden, author of "Good-bye, Piccadilly: British War Brides in America" (University of Illinois Press, 177 pages, $20).

Because war brides scattered when they arrived, not clustering, as other immigrant groups commonly did in Little Italies or Chinatowns or in any one social strata, historians have largely overlooked them.

As they settled in and had families of their own, the women often made sure that the next generation soaked up some of each culture -- a little Yorkshire pudding along with the hamburger. They contributed in other ways, too, becoming U.S. citizens, voting, paying taxes, raising children.

"They did all the things that women do," Virden says, "that keep a nation going."

Barbara Brisbin ; Her 'tango' started in Scotland and took her to timber country Barbara Brisbin, 84

Then: Glasgow, Scotland

Now: McMinnville

Barbara Brisbin left Glasgow in 1946 on a February night so bitterly cold she was glad to be bundled in her best Harris Tweed suit and Fair Isle sweater. Of course, she also was thrilled to be on her way to reunite with the American GI she'd married there the year before.

On the crowded platform, bagpipers played and her friends sang their goodbyes. But as Brisbin pulled slowly out of the station, she remembers, sadness washed over her as the train's shrill whistle drowned out the sounds of the life she'd always known.

She was a city girl heading for a country life in a strange land: Southern Oregon.

Barbara Murray was 20 when 32-year-old U.S. Army Pfc. Wallace M. "Wally" Brisbin asked her to dance one night in Glasgow, which teemed with soldiers from around the globe.

She and her girlfriends routinely would slip into their best dresses and paint their legs with makeup the color of the silk stockings almost no one could get during wartime. They'd carefully draw a seam from the backs of their ankles all the way up, which looked smashing -- until it rained.

No matter. They'd show up at the Locarno Ballroom, listen while the bands tuned up on the revolving stage, then wait for fellas like Wally Brisbin to come along.

Barbara adored the tango. "Wally," she says, "called it the tangle, because he had two left feet."

If he wasn't much of a dancer, at least his quick wit could match hers, and he struck Barbara as a kind, honest man. After two or three dates he started talking about their future.

When the war ended and Wally returned to Oregon, the U.S. Army arranged for Barbara to travel on one of the so-called bride ships carrying tens of thousands of women and children from Great Britain, Europe, Australia and elsewhere to the States.

The train from Glasgow took her through London, where it picked up more GI brides on their way to a military base used as a bride-processing center in Tidworth, in southern England. The women lived in barracks and took meals served by German prisoners of war in the mess hall. After a few weeks, Brisbin found herself in much better digs -- aboard the Queen Mary.

Five days later, on March 17, 1946, the legendary ocean liner slowed down early in the morning as it passed the Statue of Liberty.

"We were in awe," Barbara remembers.

She still had a long journey ahead, on a "bride train" from New York to Oregon.

Wally met her train in Grants Pass because it wouldn't stop in Roseburg, where he'd grown up and where his family had timber and cattle. They drove north in his old Studebaker.

It was pitch dark by the time he turned up a dirt road, stopped to open a cattle gate, then proceeded driving deep into the woods.

"Wait a minute," Barbara told him, as she wondered, suddenly, about this man she hadn't seen in 11 months. "Nobody could live up here. Wally, are you sure you're not lost?"

His reply, as she remembers it: "Barb, I've lived here all my life."

For the next 40 years, until she moved to McMinnville 20 years ago, Roseburg would be Barbara Brisbin's home, too.

The sweet, hardworking soldier who won her heart on a Glasgow dance floor died from cancer on Christmas Day 1977.

Over the years, Brisbin has returned to Scotland seven or eight times, but with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren here, she wasn't tempted to stay.

"I always felt," she says, "when the plane was circling to land in Oregon, 'Oh, I'm home again.' "

Angela Barnett ; Her New York honeymoon ushered in a better life in the U.S.

Angela Barnett, 78

Then: Horley, England

Now: Tigard

Before she left England in March 1947, Angela Barnett's father sent money to an account he'd opened for her in the United States, just in case things didn't work out.

After all, his blond, blue-eyed daughter had wondered herself whether the 6-foot-3-inch U.S. Army private she'd fallen for during the war -- but hadn't seen in a year -- would really be there when her Pan Am Clipper landed in New York.

He was. And as the two drove away from the airport and north toward his family's home in Hudson Valley, N.Y., Stanley Howe stopped on the side of the road, dug into his pocket and pulled out an engagement ring.

Angela, 20, wasted little time sending a telegram home.

"Arrived safely," it read. "I'm engaged and very happy."

Stan's mother took Angela shopping the same week, and in the couple's wedding pictures, the bride looks elegant in the gray suit and rose-rimmed, pale blue hat she bought that day.

They honeymooned in the city, and the first night in a New York restaurant, Stan ordered for Angela. When dinner arrived, her jaw dropped: The T-bone steak was so enormous it would have served as a family's entire weekly ration back home during wartime.

Pockmarked by German bombs and short on everything from beef to baked beans, life in England was hard.

Not that Angela didn't enjoy herself as her country pulsated with handsome, fun-loving soldiers from all over the world.

"We danced," she remembers, "practically every night."

She was on her way to a dance the day she met Stan Howe.

"He always said he knew from the moment he met me," Angela says, "that I was the one he'd marry."

Two or three months later, they agreed to do just that as soon as Stan returned from France after the D-Day invasion. But instead of returning to England, Stan was shipped straight home to the States.

Because they hadn't married yet, it took Angela a year to get the U.S. government's permission to immigrate. Their marriage would have been delayed even longer had she waited to travel on one of the "fiance ships" transporting soldiers' British girlfriends across the Atlantic.

Angela, who yearned to make her life in the United States -- and the sooner the better -- was thrilled when Stan sent her the money for an airline ticket.

The thrill, however, ebbed slowly from her marriage as she realized her husband never intended to move out of his parents' house, even after they had two children.

"I couldn't compete with his mother," she says simply.

They divorced after 10 years.

Angela, who always had worked, wasn't the type to shy from change and ended up in Oregon. A friend had told her the climate and landscape would remind her of England, which was just about the right dose of home for her.

"I never regretted coming to America," she says. "To this day, I've had a much better life in this country than I ever could have in England."

Joan Patterson ; Her Joe missed the boat, then made a life of travel

Joan Patterson, 82

Then: Melbourne, Australia

Now: Vancouver

Husbands and families lined the wharf as the Monterey, brimming with Australian war brides, sailed into San Francisco on a spring day in 1946.

Once the ship docked, authorities made great ceremony of the arrival, lining the women up alphabetically and calling out their married names. One by one, brides glided down the gangplank while their husbands ran to embrace them.

Because her new name fell low in the alphabet, it felt like a long wait, Joan Patterson remembers. When she finally heard her name, her heart lifted, then quickly fell.

Joseph C. "Joe" Patterson hadn't met the boat.

No one was there to claim Joan.

After two weeks at sea, she'd have to stay on board, the authorities told the crestfallen bride.

Joan Nicholls and Joe Patterson first laid eyes on each other across a Melbourne restaurant in 1942. She was 18 and had stopped for a bite with a girlfriend before heading to night classes at a technical college. He was 23 or 24, and was among the first U.S. airmen to arrive in Australia during World War II. He followed the women out of the restaurant and, to their surprise, was waiting for them when they got out of class.

Irate, Joan asked why he was following them. Joe admitted, she recalls, "that he was lonely and just wanted to meet some Australian girls."

He escorted them home, and a romance began to bud.

Lunches gave way to letters when Joe was transferred to Queensland, and when Joan joined the Australian Women's Army Signal Corps.

"We really got to know each other through the letters," Joan says.

He'd write about everything from his family back home in Ohio to the airplanes he was working on. Often, when Joan or Joe would tear open envelopes, they'd find that censors had carefully cut out words that might have tipped off the enemy.

He struck her as loyal, kind and thoughtful. "I thought I probably would never meet a man," she says, "who was as nice and good as he was."

Joan's sister already had married a U.S. serviceman, and she would, too, on Oct. 17, 1944, in Brisbane. They honeymooned there, along some of the world's most spectacular beaches, for a week before they had to part.

They wouldn't see each other for 16 months -- two days after she arrived in San Francisco aboard the Monterey.

Joe had wanted to take his bride on a tour of the nation's great parks, making a second honeymoon out of their drive to his home in Ohio. But on the way to San Francisco, his Ford convertible broke down.

He called a friend in San Jose, who fetched Joan off the ship the day after it pulled into port. The next day, Joe arrived, and they began a life together that would take them from Ohio to Texas, back to Australia for a couple of years, then to Seattle and Portland. Joe's love of planes kept him employed in the airline industry, which meant Joan could travel frequently enough -- even after he died in 1984 -- to introduce their five children and four grandchildren to the country she left behind.

Sunny Sansing ; Persistent pilot takes her from Down Under to down South

Sunny Sansing, 87

Then: Sydney, Australia

Now: Beaverton

As she strode through a Quonset hut enduring aviators' whistles, catcalls and shouts of "Hey, Blondie!," Nea Woolard grew furious. After all, she was a proper young lady from Sydney and unaccustomed to lewd U.S. flyboys.

The American officer she had business with that day at Garbutt Airfield in northeastern Australia could tell she was steamed, and asked, "What's the matter?"

The whistles and catcalls, she told him. "You just don't do that."

"Well," she remembers him saying, "why don't you turn side-on and let us see what they're whistling at?"

How was she to know the smart comment was simply the first flash of U.S. Army Air Forces Maj. Richard "Dick" Sansing's delightfully wicked sense of humor?

"You," fumed the sprightly, 5-foot-1 radio operator in the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force , "are a very rude Yank."

"No ma'am," he replied in a Tennessee drawl. "I'm a Southern gentleman."

At that moment, Woolard wouldn't have predicted she'd marry the major from Memphis. But in the months that followed, the persistent pilot wooed her over fried chicken and apple pie at the officers' club on the base that served as a launching pad for Allied forces fighting in the Pacific during World War II. The two picnicked or jitterbugged or sipped Shandies, concoctions made of half beer and half 7-Up.

When Nea Woolard, who long since has gone by the name Sunny Sansing, recalls details from the scarce opportunities she and the major had to court during those busy wartime months in 1944, she smiles and licks her lips, as if she can still taste the treats he brought her: bags of fruit, tins of peanuts, cartons of cigarettes.

Australia had been at war since 1939. To her, the tokens of the American's affection were rare luxury items.

He never did ask her to marry him -- not really. But before Dick Sansing left Australia for a South Pacific mission, the lively Aussie he'd grown so fond of wept as she told him, "I'll never see you again."

In reply, "he said something like, 'I'll see you for the rest of my life,' " Sunny Sansing recalls, thumbing through yellowing photographs at her home in Seminole Estates, a Beaverton retirement community not far from her son's home.

When the war ended, Dick Sansing sent for Sunny -- the nickname he'd given her because her blond curls reminded him of sun shining through corn silk. She had room to pack only a few things in the one suitcase Pan American Airlines allowed. Among them was the wedding dress she'd designed, made from Chinese silk, with a scoop neck, lacy sleeves and 52 buttons down the back.

Her plane took off from Sydney and island-hopped its way to San Francisco, requiring repairs nearly everywhere it landed. The flight took seven days, with the plane's propellers roaring in her ears all the way -- and Sunny still had to make her way to Memphis.

She did on Sept. 23, 1946. Three days later, she and Dick married in his family's Southern Baptist church; his mother was less than thrilled that her son was marrying not only a foreigner, but also a Catholic.

They honeymooned for two nights in Memphis' swanky Peabody Hotel before embarking on a military life that would see Dick climb to the rank of lieutenant colonel, and Sunny nimbly take on the duties of an officer's wife. The Army posted them and, eventually, their son, Raymond, in places as far-flung as England, Germany and at the Pentagon, but never Australia.

They had a rich life together until Dick Sansing, the pilot who, his widow says, "always had the look of an eagle," died of cancer on her birthday in September 1970.

Sunny Sansing wrote and called home often, but she wouldn't see Sydney's graceful harbor or her mother again for 22 years after she left Australia.

"You have got to love a man an awful, awful lot," she says, "to give up everything you have for him."

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