The American War Bride Experience

GI Brides of World War II

California State University,
Long Beach war bride tells tale

By Christy Larsen, On-Line Forty-Niner
Thursday, January 21, 1999

CORONA DEL MAR - On Easter Sunday 1946, Joan Shaw, a 75-year-old Cal State Long Beach graduate, traveled across the Atlantic Ocean aboard the Queen Mary to begin a new life. The Queen Mary ocean liner arrived in New York after a five-day trans-Atlantic passage from England. The ship was filled with the brides of American soldiers who had come to be reunited with their husbands after World War II, including the 23-year-old Shaw.

Shaw's new life included being a wife, a mother of four and a nurse. She earned her nursing degree from CSULB in 1966 at the age of 43. Like the rest of the women on the ocean liner, Shaw had left her home, family, and everything she had ever known in England. Shaw said she has always been an adventurous person. She looked upon this trip as what was meant to be and was not afraid of it.

"I don't remember feeling nervous at all," Shaw said. "It was great. I loved the sea and still do." The ocean liner had been transformed into a troopship during the war, Shaw said. Despite the basic accommodations, everyone still dressed nicely during the trip. The ship did have shops on board, Shaw said. "Everybody dressed up in those days, " Shaw said. "The girls had all been used to clothes rationing, so most of them went crazy buying stuff. I was very good and watched my money."

Shaw had her 4-month-old baby with her. Many women had babies, too. The hardest part of the ocean crossing was how many of the babies got sick, she said. They suffered from seasickness, diarrhea, and colds. Shaw's son, Stephen, managed to stay healthy which she attributed to her nursing him. Every day of the trip they lost an hour due to the time change and everyday the babies would wake up an hour earlier.
"We ended up doing their six o'clock feeding at two in the morning," Shaw said.

When the Queen Mary reached New York on Easter Sunday, there was a church service for all of the passengers. "I can still remember the chaplain saying, 'Begin your new life Easter Sunday morning.' I always remember that," Shaw said. The American Red Cross was there to help all of the women and children, she said. Shaw, along with many others, was transferred to a train for the final part of her journey to California. On April 10, 1946, after traveling across the ocean and three days on the train, Shaw reached the Los Angeles Union Station and her husband, Bob Shaw, she said.
"As husbands met their wives, they had to sign for them as if they were chattel," Shaw said. "We all watched as people greeted their husbands."
Shaw said she had not seen her husband for several months, and was very happy to see him again. She still has the photograph of their reunion at Union Station in the living room of her Corona del Mar home.

Shaw met her American husband while he was stationed in England during World War II, she said. Bob Shaw had been a student at UCLA in the ROTC program when he saw the war coming. He went into officers training and arrived in England in 1942 as an officer in the United States Army-Air Force. At that time, those two branches of the service were combined, Shaw said. "He was in the 8th Air Force Flying Fortresses doing the bombing raids when they were losing a lot of planes," Shaw said. The English soldiers had definite opinions about the Americans during the war, Shaw said.
"They felt that 'they're oversexed, they're overpaid, and they're over here!" she said.

Shaw's father worked for Warner Brothers and sold films in England. He sent invitations to the American military camp to come to see some movies and two officers came.
"We got to meet them and get to know them. We gave them a little home life," Shaw said. This is how she met Bob Shaw. Shaw said it was not love at first sight. He asked her two times before she said yes she would marry him.

"It's not just getting married, it's going away from home," Shaw said. It actually has been good for her parents, she said, as it has broadened their horizons. They have come to the United States many times and have even developed friendships here.

Bob and Joan Shaw were married and had their first child, Stephen, while they were still in England. Shaw's husband had to go to Germany when Stephen was only a month old. Meanwhile Shaw remained in England until she set out on the Queen Mary. Once in California, the Shaws lived with his parents who had an English-style house with an attic. They had refurbished the attic for the young family to live in, Shaw said.

"There were certain things that would make me unhappy like my first Christmas at Grandma's," Shaw said. "They had turkey for Thanksgiving and she thought she'd have ham for Christmas and I'm thinking 'Christmas without turkey?" Another difference Shaw became aware of was how Americans celebrated New Year's Eve.
"Bob's parents almost every year had a New Year's party with a bunch of booze. Bob was telling me I had to learn to drink," Shaw said.

In England, the new year was celebrated symbolically with a brunette woman and a man going out the back door just as the year was ending, Shaw said. They then would knock on the front door bringing in the new year with them. They would hand out new pennies to everyone and say happy new year. Then everyone would hug and sing "Auld Lang Syne."
She misses those fun parties, Shaw said. She still doesn't like the way Americans celebrate the new year.

In 1952, six years after her arrival, Shaw became a citizen of the United States. She found her citizenship class to be interesting and fun.
"People from all nations were in the class and made it just fascinating," Shaw said.
Also in 1952, Shaw took her three children back to England to visit her family, she said. They traveled there on the Queen Elizabeth, but returned on the Queen Mary.
"It was a proper ship by then - a cruise ship," Shaw said. "It was nice because I could put the kids in the nursery and go have a good time. My friends thought that I was absolutely mad taking three small kids or they thought I was brave. I had my meals served and everything was great. Some man on the ship actually remembered me from the trip."

This trip was rougher than her first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.
"There were only two people mad enough to stay on deck during the storm and that was me and a Frenchman," Shaw said.

In 1996, Shaw's family helped her celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of her maiden trip across the Atlantic Ocean with a luncheon on the Queen Mary, Shaw said. "They were very nice to me," Shaw said. "I wrote a letter of commendation to the people in the restaurant. They did a really nice job. They made a big cake and I had only one other GI bride whom I'd met in England. She wasn't on the same ship, but she lived in the same town and we met at the well-baby clinic. I invited her down and her daughter and son-in-law also came down because the daughter was born in England. So we had two kids who born over there and us two GI brides. That was kind of nice. They wrote it on the cake."

Shaw has continued her adventurous life over the past 52 years. Along with raising four children, she managed to earn a nursing degree from CSULB in 1966 at the age of 43, she said.

Now retired from her nursing career, she still works as a volunteer at the local Boys and Girls Club, Shaw said. Her husband died 15 years ago and her children are all grown with children of their own now.
She travels extensively, including an African safari and a camping trip with the Sierra club in southeast Alaska. Her favorite place is Sitka, Alaska, Shaw said. "Sitka is the place I have fallen in love with," Shaw said. "I'd love to go and live there."

Joan Shaw's adventures will continue, but she is sure to never forget the one adventure that brought her to America where she has lived and raised her family for fifty-two years.

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