The American War Bride Experience

GI Brides of World War II

WWII War Brides:
When The Women 'Over There' Came Over Here


(Terry and Sanford Juntoff, just after their wedding in a London synagogue, January 1945.)

If you think today's weddings require too much planning and decision-making, put yourself in the place of WWII war brides. They had fewer decisions to make, but the magnitude of those decisions was immense. Saying “I do” would alter their lives irrevocably, transporting them to America to live among strangers. They were removed from their native customs, family and friends - probably forever, given the prohibitive cost of transatlantic travel and long-distance calls at the time. Once they got hitched, there was no easy turning back.

Old-fashioned speed dating

In 1944, 19-year-old Dorothy Kropman was in the habit of attending the informal, weekly dances at the Waterpack Tennis Club, a primarily Jewish club in Manchester, England, which opened its doors to Jewish-American serviceman.

Despite the popular British joke that American GIs were “overpaid, oversexed, and over here,” Dorothy contends Jewish GIs were looking for companionship more than romance. The soldiers came “from miles around Manchester,” some of them “guys who'd never even been to (synagogue) services,” she recalls. They came “just to be with other Jews.”

One March evening, Dorothy met and danced with Staff Sgt. Sam Lessam, a 36-year-old Cleveland native serving in the finance corps. Dorothy was extremely nearsighted, and that night she decided to forgo her glasses. (Conventional wisdom held that “men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses.”) Instead, Dorothy relied on her best friend for descriptions of the men they met. A few days after the dance, Lessam called to ask Dorothy on a date. She said “yes,” and they agreed to meet at a bus stop. “I hadn't the least idea what he looked like, but fortunately, he was the only American to get off the bus,” Dorothy recalls with a laugh. After a few weeks, they'd fallen in love and were planning to wed in August 1944.

Dorothy may have been literally nearsighted, but when it came to making big decisions, she was remarkably farsighted. She married Lessam despite attempts from three American Jewish chaplains and her own rabbi to dissuade her. “They told me I didn't know what I was getting myself into, but we got married and we fooled them all,” she says. Their happy marriage lasted 45 years, until Sam's death in 1990.

“Once I make up my mind to do something, I do it. I don't-second guess myself,” Dorothy Lessam acknowledges. “I don't think I've made too many bad decisions.” Terry and Sanford Juntoff's meeting and courtship in the seaport town of Plymouth, England, was no less precipitous. Terry, 19, was a Londoner who had volunteered as a Wren (WRNs, Women's Royal Naval Service). She was stationed in Plymouth where Sanford, a Cleveland native, was a chief petty officer in the U.S. Navy, assigned to a minesweeper undergoing repairs in Plymouth. Like the Lessams, the two met at a weekly social event - services, supper and entertainment organized for Jewish servicemen by a small Orthodox shul that had miraculously survived the four-day incendiary bombing of Plymouth.

Decisions, decisions

Unlike today's brides, Lessam and her fellow war brides were spared endless decisions about flowers, dresses, tuxedos, food, venue and entertainment. The rigors of wartime narrowed their options considerably. Who owned a nice dress they could borrow? Which synagogue was intact enough after the bombings to get married in? And with rationing, where would they find enough flour, eggs, and butter to make a wedding cake?

Two-and-a-half weeks before Sam and Dorothy Lesssam's wedding date, Sam learned he was being deployed to Russia. The couple decided to marry immediately. Fortunately, the rabbi and the synagogue they'd hired (Dorothy's own synagogue had been bombed) were available. The guests were informed of the change in plans, and Dorothy's friend's mother hurriedly baked pastries for the reception.

In the end, Sam wasn't deployed to Russia, remaining in England and Ireland until he was discharged in July of 1945. He returned to Cleveland while Dorothy and their daughter Ruth remained behind to make their way through a morass of military bureaucracy.

One-way passage

To sail to America, a GI bride needed, in addition to a visa, passport, birth certificate, police record, and marriage certificate, a sworn statement from her husband that he could support her, complete with salary details, and a statement from her husband's commander verifying those details.

She also needed a statement from her husband's family saying they would feed and house her if her husband was still in the service and evidence that she would get a ticket to her final destination upon disembarking from her transatlantic voyage. Finally, each bride was required to bring exactly £10 in cash, no more, no less.

Terry and Sanford Juntoff married in a London synagogue in January 1945. Terry was discharged from the British Navy and spent time at the American embassy until transport was arranged for her. In March 1945, Terry was among the first war brides to sail to America, in a convoy carrying 200 wounded Americans and 25 war brides. She still has the elegant printed menu from the farewell dinner aboard the sS John Ericsson.

For the Britons, long accustomed to strict rationing, the feast - which included steak, asparagus, fresh lettuce and tomatoes, peach melba, and chocolate cake - was an embarrasment of riches and a intimation of the abundance they'd discover in American grocery stores and kitchens.

Dorothy Lessam's trip was typical of the 60,000 war brides transported, at the military's cost, from England to the U.S. Once they'd gotten through “the whole rigmarole” of military bureaucracy, Dorothy and Ruth joined hundreds of other brides and children aboard an Italian cruiser which arrived in New York City on St. Patrick's Day 1946.

The voyage itself was no picnic. “It really was dreadful on the ship - a terrible storm blew us north so we were literally among icebergs,” Dorothy recalls. “It took ten days to cross. I was seasick and so was our daughter Ruth.” At the end of the voyage, Ruth also developed respiratory problems.

Sam met his family in New York, where they had dinner at the home of a cousin, a physician who listened to Ruth's lungs and recommended admitting the infant to a hospital. But after the trauma of the voyage, Dorothy couldn't leave Ruth in a hospital bed. Instead, she and Sam turned the back seat of their car into an impromptu steam bath for the baby and drove straight back to a doctor in Cleveland. (Ruth recovered nicely.)

Home, sweet home

For nine months, the Lessams lived with Sam's parents on Hamilton, off East 105th street. Sam, an accountant, had a job outside Buffalo, which left Dorothy and the baby with Sam's parents for most of the week. Life with her Orthodox in-laws was initially an uncomfortable fit for Dorothy, who is “third-generation Reform.”

But her in-laws were barely a disturbing blip on the radar compared with Cleveland's “appalling weather,” says Dorothy. “Twenty minutes after I got here, it was so hot I couldn't believe it! I nearly croaked! ”

‘Very lost in the beginning'

Terry Juntoff's husband Sanford wasn't discharged for months after she came to the States. Sanford met Terry's boat in New York and brought her to Cleveland, where she moved in with his mother. He was home on leave for a month and then redeployed. Terry had a baby in December 1945; Sanford was discharged in October of 1946, more than a year after Terry immigrated to America.

“I was very lost in the beginning,” Terry says, recalling her difficulty in getting used to American spellings and idioms. One phrase commonly used in England Terry hastily abandoned in America: In England, “What time to you want to be knocked up?” meant “What time do you want to be woken up?” she says, laughing.

While “the hustle and bustle of cars,” was initially daunting, Terry quickly adjusted to the luxury of central heating, washing machines, and refrigerators, none of which were common in wartime England. And then there was the abundant and fresh food.

Terry also loved the feeling of community among Jews in Cleveland. In her youth, “Jewish people in England were mostly strictly Orthodox and kept to themselves.” As a result, Terry felt rather isolated. “Growing up, ours was one of two Jewish families on the block, and there might have been only one or two Jewish children in school,” she recalls. Even in her Hebrew school, her classmates were strangers from other parts of London.

“I came here and (found) the Jewish people here more out in the open than in England. There was more of a Jewish life (in Cleveland) than in London. In general there's more mixing in each others' homes in the States.”

Community shares

Ultimately, it was their deepening relationships with husbands, in-laws, congregants in their synagogue and with one another that made life in America comfortable for war brides.

Terry Juntoff and Dorothy Lessam found each other at a meeting of Daughters of the British Empire “of all places,” says Lessam. They also met and made longstanding friendships with other war brides, including one from what was then British Palestine.

Each woman mentioned the positive impact her respective synagogue has had in her “Americanization.” “I felt very welcomed at Park Synagogue,” where Sanford had been a lifelong member, says Juntoff. The list of committees and projects they're involved in leaves little doubt that “we're still very active” at Park.

Joining Temple Emanu El was a turning point for Lessam. “I really began to feel at home here when I joined Emanu El,” she recalls. “They've always been wonderful to me. They became my family and helped me through some very difficult times.”

The right groom

Of course, married life in any country is always better when you've chosen the right husband, as both Juntoff and Lessam did. Thinking back, Juntoff notes her adjustment to American life was easier than it might have been because Sanford “was really very helpful, and he was very good about explaining things to me.”

Sam Lessam, too, was a patient man with great concern for the needs and comfort of his loved ones. “Sam was an extraordinarily goodhearted, wonderful guy,” Dorothy says, as regret for his loss temporarily shadows her otherwise upbeat voice.

from: Wednesday April 5, 2006 Cleveland Jewish

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