May 1996 Issue of Discovery Channel Monthly p.18/19
HERE COME THE BRIDES
By Kit Carlson
The streets were lined with women when the G.I.s came to town. In Belgium, France, Italy, and Germany, the tanks of the liberatore were met by scores of warvine, singing, crying girls. And the soldiers themselves – smiling as they tossed candy, gum, and cigarettes – well, they seemed like nothing less than enormous, well-fed gods. It was love at first sight. And for one million European women, the pealing church bells meant more than liberation. They meant marriage.
As World War II shuddered to a close, America’s finest had time at last to look at Europe’s fairest. G.I.s grabbed the nearest girls and started pitching that woo. Throughout the war, military higher-ups had tried to prevent these crow-cultural romances. But after V-E Day, the soldiers had more time to play, and their superiors grew ever more desperate: they hosted G.I. Olympic Games, brought movie stars over for U.S.O. tours, and backed the Arch-bishop of Paris when he spoke out against such affaires de coeur.
Finally, they gave up. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt worked with the Red Cross and the Salvation Army to get the Joes and the Jillians together to dance or play games in clean, well-lighted rooms. Despite every obstacle, wedding bells kept ringing, followed by the wails of babies. Honeymoons were brief – ships were already waiting to carry the soldiers home. Wives and children were left behind, anxiously awaiting their turn to cross the Atlantic.
To relocate one million war brides to the States was an expensive, logistical, and often humiliating nightmare. In Army and Red Cross processing camps – primitive, cold, full of bureaucrats and their endless forms – the women were given gynecological exams on a stage in front of their fellow brides, as soldiers peeped in the windows. Their babies caught and spread every possible illness. The learned about their new country through movies - reel after reel of pristine refrigerators and washing machines, of hulking automobiles gliding down four-lane turnpikes, of infinite waves of amber grain. Amid the rubble of Europe, America seemed like a dream.
But eventually, the brides set sail. After nine days of miserable seasickness, full of trepidation, they landed in New York to meet their husbands, their in-lase, and the over-eager American press. They were also greeted by picketing women bearing signs that said, “Give us back our men,” but they had come too far to quake at the sight of a few hostile Americans. Despite discrimination, the brides quickly blended into post-war, suburban life.
Did they live happily ever after? Each woman had her own story to tell, her own life to unfold. But for better or worse, 80 percent of them stayed married to their soldier boys for their entire lives.
NOTE: War Brides who could afford it bypassed a hellacious, nine-day ocean voyage and flew.
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