The American War Bride Experience

GI Brides of World War II


by Joan Reichardt
It was 55 years ago this past May 28th [2001] that I was on a train somewhere between Winnipeg and my destination, Saskatoon, where I would arrive just before midnight. I was going to join the young man I had been married to for 11 months and hadn't seen for 10.

I had been notified of my imminent departure at the beginning of May and then my final "orders" on the 12th. I was to take the train from Richmond Station and proceed to Waterloo where I was to contact the Canadian Railway Transportation Officer (RTO) for further instructions. I had been ready and anxious to go for months, I had my trunk duly marked with my name and a few meagre new bits of clothing carefully packed inside. I had my travelling outfit all ready -- brown-and-white herringbone tweed suit with matching brown blouse and hat. All very "utility" except for the hat -- no coupons required. It was very stylish, very expensive, and totally unsuitable.

Going up to Waterloo was no big deal -- it took about 20 minutes and I had done it daily when working in London. So having said goodbye to everyone -- all very stiff upper lip -- I was on my way. Arriving at Waterloo I found no RTO, Canadian or otherwise, and so stood, all forlorn, with my trunk and other luggage, waiting to be called for. Eventually I spotted the British RTO and he took charge of my belongings while I waited. I had by now been joined by another girl so was not quite so alone. The Canadian RTO appeared along with others and we were put on a bus to wait. As soon as all had been accounted for we trundled off to the hostel that was to be our home for the night, it was close to the Dorchester Hotel and some of us speculated (very briefly) if that was our destination. The hostel was very basic with long dormitory-style rooms with at least 20 double-decker bunks down each side and only two washrooms. We had by now decided that our group included no women with children and we wondered why.

Our evening meal I do not remember, but I recall that we watched "How Green Was My Valley" so there must have been a cinema of sorts. Getting into my bunk that night was an adventure as I was not used to getting undressed and ready for bed in the company of hundreds -- or so it seemed to me, but I managed and must have slept.

The next morning we were up early and given baked beans on toast for breakfast. Then onto a bus, into Hyde Park where we sat for ages. I now know that they had to prepare for the next batch of brides but no one told us anything. At last we arrived at Victoria Station and knew we were sailing from Southampton.

A girl in my carriage on the train got us all excited as she knew the QUEEN MARY had docked the day before and thought we might be sailing in style. Not so. We kept going further and further along the docks, with her saying "only little ships dock here" until we were off the train and boarding the LADY RODNEY, one of the smallest (if not the smallest) ship that was used for the transatlantic crossing.

We soon found out why there were no children allowed; the ship was not equipped to handle medical emergencies and was slow. There were only 254 brides aboard and the ship was far from a luxury liner. However, off we went, a few tears as the ship drew away but most of us were happy and excited at being at last on our way. As we were boarded alphabetically, by the time they got to the R's we were on a higher deck with portholes we could see out of, three triple-decker bunks in a cabin but only six occupants, a washbasin and the toilets down the hall. The LADY RODNEY had been used as a hospital ship and all the doors had been removed from the toilet cubicles so when using one of them we could observe all the other occupants in the mirrors above the washbasins on the other wall.

Our first meal was memorable -- white bread, butter, fruit -- utter bliss. The QUEEN MARY had pulled out by this time and was to go to New York and back before we got to Halifax as the RODNEY took nine days to make the crossing. I have always said we went so slowly that the seagulls were passing us. It was not rough crossing but the RODNEY was not the most stable of ships and I, along with many others, did not feel too good, certainly not able to do justice to the wonderful food some were able to enjoy.

There were service personal running the show and everything went very smoothly; we even had a ship's concert and a special song, sung to the tune of "MacNamara's Band." I still have the programme and the song. As we got closer to our destination we were told we would be veering south to avoid icebergs. That created a little excitement.

In my cabin there was a girl named Betty RRID, going (I think) to Calgary. She was a member of the DAGENHAM GIRLS PIPE BAND and so as we steamed into Halifax on May 24th we did so with great panache with Betty playing the pipes. There were flags and bands on the dock, which we thought were for us but were in fact because it was Victoria Day.

So it was off the ship and on the train, with as I recall little red tape, just Landed Immigrant cards (which I didn't like as I did not consider myself an immigrant). We also were able to get some Canadian currency and were warned not to be careless with it as there are always people ready to take advantage. This warning fell on many deaf ears as we were no sooner out of Halifax and stopped somewhere when vendors appeared selling little tubs of "ice cream" which turned out to be filled with sand.

The landscape we passed through on that long journey was so different and wild compared to the little patchwork fields of England and, of course, we all crowded to the windows to see who was being met by what whenever the train stopped. A couple of us in my carriage discovered that our food was not as good as that in the adjacent carriage and brought this to the attention of our escorts. It turned out the chap in charge of catering for our end of the train assumed we wouldn't know the difference so was feeding us on the cheap and pocketing the surplus. That was the end of him. I often wonder what happened to my fellow complainer as I am still a "righter of wrongs" and have been all my years in Canada.

On the Sunday we arrived in Montreal and those of us going west were taken on a bus tour of the city. What I remember best is how loud and garish the clothing worn by the women seemed, in contrast to our sombre utility garb, and the extraordinary looking baby carriages, so unlike our English prams. We all agreed we'd have none of those.

Then back on the train and on to Winnipeg where we were again sorted according to whether we were travelling by CNR or CPR. We did lose one girl in Winnipeg -- she nipped out to shop and didn't make it back in time so we left without her. I remember being shocked by the intense heat and the wind (which I was to come to loath during my years on the prairies) when we got off briefly at some little whistle-stop in Manitoba and also astonished at the flat and featureless landscape we were passing through.

By the time we arrived in Saskatoon it was dark. Having seen some of the strangely garbed (to our English eyes who had only known our men in uniform) characters who had met our fellow travellers as we crossed this endless expanse of land, we were all joking about whether or not we would recognise our husbands and as I had had the longest wait since we had last met I was delegated to be the first off the train. I remember seeing this young man (not hard to spot or recognise since he was 6-foot-6 and had red hair) and running madly across the station and into his arms.

I was told, many years later, by a woman I met in Saskatoon, that I had nearly knocked her over. I do not remember that at all. My lovely expensive hat was knocked off my head and I never wore it again -- a brown felt cartwheel not really suitable wear for the prairies. I don't remember what we did with luggage, I took my little carry-on and we got into a cab. As my husband put his arm around me he got his elbow in my eye, which watered profusely, so the desk clerk at the Bessborough probably thought I was in tears.

We went up to our room and, anxious to see my new home, I tried to look out the window, only to encounter my first window screen -- a heavy-duty one at that, which just about knocked me cold. The most remarkable part of the story is that despite the crazy way to start a life together, many of us had good, solid, loving marriages and found it was all worthwhile.

Sent in by Margaret Murray

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