G.I.s in Tewkesbury 1943-45 - Part Two

by John Dixon

The story so far: The camp having been erected in 1939. it was code-named 'G-25' from August 1942 when the first Americans arrived to refurbish it. By 'D-Day' in June 1944 it was so important that it was the main U.S. supply base for 'Operation Overlord. Such a huge military presence was bound to have a significant effect on the life of Tewkesbury. This is the subject of this second article. 

With hindsight there are two contentious issues which demand attention. The first concerns war-time romance. "From my researches," writes the author of the book in preparation, "most of the marriages between local girls and the GI's did not turn out well and many came back home. Others did not like the U.SA. but stayed Some did make a go of it but that was the minority." [1] 

Most histories of the period point out that G.l.'s were targeted by the less salubrious members of our society. W.I. Ladies confirm that "there were a great number of women who came down from Manchester and London to fraternise with the American troops." [9] Miss Day agrees that "prostitutes used to come from places as far away as Birmingham, by the late trains to Ashchurch, leaving again early in the morning. I saw some...as I was cycling to work at 51) a.m.. Not a pretty sight." [3] 

The situation must have deteriorated for in May 1944 the 'Echo' reported a sermon by the Vicar of Holy Trinity Church, which reflected the contemporary debate about the Beveridge Report. The headline was provocative: 

"TEWKESBURY VICAR ON MORAL DECADENCE 

Decline in National Righteousness. 

It was of little use for the Government to make plans for social security if a man found his home broken up through the unfaithfulness of his wife. 

NATIONAL EVIL 

..among young girls the habit of drinking threatened to be a national evil. 

When he heard that of 32 births registered in Tewkesbury last quarter, 19 were illegitimate, he trembled for the future of the country." [9] 

The U.S. authorities were aware of this threat to discipline and local bilateral relations, for the G.I.'s who collected the post from Miss Day "said that they had frequent lectures from Lt. Ryerson about the unwisdom of marrying foreign women, so everyone laughed when Rye himself married an Irish girl before leaving Ashchurch." [3] 

Miss Day has provided a newspaper photograph of a G.I. wedding at St. Nicholas Church between Corporal Charles F.Tabor and Miss Peggy Jelf, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Jelf of 184 Westgate Street (Gloucester?)[3] It is difficult to present a balanced picture, since those with unhappy experiences will be less ready to record their memories than those with happier memories. 

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Sgt. Care comes into the latter category. He met his bride locally, and in 1994 they were still sufficiently content with each other for them both to write down their memories for the benefit of our researches. Mr Care wrote only briefly about his "two year courtship with an Upton girl", whom he married on 23 June 1945. However, he did link courtship with weightier historical matters! 

"The Sabrina was the scene of long queues whose make-up consisted of residents, allied military personnel and Italian P.O.W.'s, who were clearly visible by the large P.O.W, imprints on their outer garments. They were a labor force who marched to Ashchurch each day from their nearby compound..Acceptance of the Italians far outweighed resentmentofthem. After D-Day many German prisoners came to Britain. The mix of prisoners was a no-no so the Italians were relocated and a German compound that was in walking distance from Ashchurch now supplied a labor force." [4] 

Mrs. Care went into more detail. She concentrates on the cinema's "little tea room" and remembers that there were many advertisements between films, one of which was for a local gardening centre, using the slogan "Everything in the garden is lovely." When separated by war they would sign off their letters with "'Everything in the garden is lovely' to evade the inevitable censor.'" [4] She goes on to write "I was stationed at Earls' Croome with the A.TS. at Coastal and Anti-Aircraft Experimental Establishment (CAEE) as a Kinetheodolite operator (secret radar and no visitors)." Lives changed when the G.I.'s arrived and invited them to their dances. "It was an exciting time for us - to experience our first taste of Coke and to dance to the music of the Big Bands. We also however enjoyed the hominess (sic) of the Tewkesbury YM.CA. where we could always get a cup of weak wartime tea and perhaps a piece of cake or a cheese sandwich." [4] 

The Cares' wedding reception at the Star Hotel cost f4.14.0d (£4.70). Mrs. Care commented, "This was the full scope of our wedding reception. Although we did have a wedding cake that I transported to the Star Hotel from Earls Croome on the handlebars of my bicycle." [4](See note below)l 

Mrs. Care has also provided a copy of  'Authorisation for Mrs. Care' to travel to the U.S.A. 17 January 1946 "on military transport at US. cost" [4]

The memories of a Tewkesbury G.I. Bride have been included in an American book[10] which was given to Tewkesbury School by Mary Burkett, whose maiden name was Mary Smith, of the shop at 22, Abbots Road, Priors Park, Tewkesbury. 

In 1942 Mary Smith was sixteen years of age, and was working with Miss Day at Tewkesbury Post Office. She recalled in a recent letter that she met her future husband in October 1942. He was Howard Strombeck, a first Sergeant with B. Co.,346 Engineers. He was stationed in Tewkesbury for only three months before his transfer to Northampton to build U.S .A.A.F. runways. 

Mrs.Burkett's account is piquant: "He had been assigned to accompany a Lieutenant to the Post Office each day to purchase money orders which was my job." He asked for dates for several weeks, "even resorted to bringing most of the money in pennies to spend more time talking to me until I finally agreed to go out with him." 

In 1944 he was transferred to the infantry and participated in the liberation of Paris and the Battle of the Bulge. Wounded within 70 miles of Berlin, he returned to a U.S. Anny hospital at Blandford in May 1945. They married in Tewkesbury Abbey on 21 June 1945. "Howard returned to U.S. in July 1945; Mary had priority and left on 26 January 1946 with the first official 'GI. Bride' contingent on SS 'Argentina', comprising 451 brides (30 pregnant), 175 children and one war groom." 

The book then takes up the story: 

Mary Burkett of Tewkesbury recalled that most of the women were ill until they docked at New York. 

'We got up at about 3.30 that morning to see the Statue of Liberty, and then waited for the boat to move into harbour. But a miracle must have happened, because suddenly all the women who were so ill were able to be up and about again. Not one of those brides wanted to greet her husband from a stretcher.'" 

They were given a festive welcome, for two hundred newsmen awaited them as well as a band. Mary was then met officially by a Lieutenant who bought her a box of chocolates and put her on the '20th. Century' , "the fastest American train at that time" After an hour's wait in Elkhart (eleven miles away) she was eventually met by Howard and his relatives. 

A celebrity in her Mary's story was headline news in the local newspapers. The 'Elkhart Truth' sported the headline: "ENGLISH BRIDE OF MISHAWAKA GI MEETS HER HUSBAND HERE. Mix-up in Plans Keeps Elkhart Veteran Waiting. 

"The charming and attractive young war wife was quite enthusiastic in her praise for the warm hearted informality...she was an 'old hand at posing for newspaper cameras. " 

The caption beneath a photograph was suitably romantic: 

"they dazedly met each other, without an audible word, in the middle of the station. It was the first time she had seen him 'in civilian clothing' (52.46) nie South Bend Tribune joined in the celebration with the headline: 

"A Bit of England Comes to Mishawaka" 

'I think I'll like your country - I mean our country,' she said, with a lingering glance at her husband. She was tiny and blond with happy blue eyes." 

Inevitably, she was constrained to stay with her sister-in-law, who was "anxious to make me feel at home". "I hope you don't mind the taste of paper as I only have tea bags," hostess apologised. Asked for her food preference, Mary requested bananas and was treated to a banana split in a soda parlour! 

"It was such a luxury to be able to ...buy whatever was needed. People were very friendly and helpful." 

Mary went on to help forM the T.B.P.A. (Transatlantic Brides and Parents Association), and took special Y.W.C.A. classes in American cooking; sweet corn and spaghetti were new, while fried chicken soon became her favourite dish.

Mary divorced her G.I. husband after fifteen years, but she has married a second time and still lives in the U.S.A.. They had a daughter, Wendy, who visited her Tewkesbury grandmother, but she stayed here to marry and her daughter, Mary's granddaughter, is a pupil at Tewkesbury School. 

It is not reasonable to expect all relationships to end in successful marriages.(See note below)[l] One local aircraft factory worker enjoyed romances with a Denver G.I. and 'Rusty', the leader of the band. "Best time of my life," she recalls, fifty years on. She recalled that there had been 34 pubs in Evesham, and that G.I.'s usually succumbed to the latent strength of cider. Fights ensued, usually between Black boys and white G.I.'s.[l]

The other contentious issue is that of race relations between Black and White G.I.'s. Paradoxically, it does not seem to have been an issue in Tewkesbury where sympathy seemed firmly on the side of the former. Miss Day indicates how the Blacks were kept to some extent out of sight. In 1994 she wrote that:

"We only ever saw white troops at the canteen, the coloured Americans had a separate camp on the other side of Northway Lane, near the Northway Hotel - which was used by the American officers as a social centre - and were housed in the usual Army huts, not the semi-permanent type as on the main camp. I remember they had a telephone kiosk, because I went there out of curiosity with the postman to empty the coin boxes...When the troops moved out the postman went to clear it as usual and it had vanished back to the U.SA. The coloured boys had to be housed separately because the racial tension was terrible at the time between them and the whites. There were so many fights and arguments, especially in the public houses, that eventually they were not allowed in Tewkesbury at the same time, referred to locally as 'Black' and 'White' days.[3]

Miss Day added in conversation that the Blacks did not host their own dances, but attended those at the Abbey. The recollections of the W.I. ladies are slightly different in geographical location, but the sentiments are similar:

The Americans included a great many coloured troops; they lived in huts where the NAAFI building is now on the Ashchurch road. They were segregated from the white troops as far as possible. Local people found them polite and pleasant whereas they were a little resentful of the attitude of some of the white 'Yanks' [7]

The potential historian of Ashchurch Camp also agrees that there was never a problem with the locals or British servicemen. Difficulties were confined to the U.S. Army and occurred mainly during the first eighteen months, moving "closer, especially as the war came to a conclusion."[1] He supports this with the testimony of a G.I. of U.S/Mexican descent who now lives in this country:

"I never had a hard time - not like the coloured s...it was difficult for the blacks - the ordinary GJ.is did not mix and there were the odd fights. Things got better when we looked like winning the war - somehow the white Gl.'s began to see the whole army as one - it broke a lot of tension and many became buddies." [1]

Mr. Care supports this theory of racial mellowing quite independently in his letter:

"We had been advised prior to our arrival that an incident between black and white American troops stationed at Ashchurch resulted in a very distasteful mélée on the streets of Tewkesbury. I cannot vouch for the verity of the story." [4]

It is also clear from the publications of the Veterans' Association that there are no black members.

Being careful never to forget that attitudes change, we must record that there was always an ambivalence in U.K.-U.S. relations, especially in the early days. 'Stars and Stripes' in 1943 published a cartoon which revealed local suspicions of Americans: "there's an American for you - always in a hurry!"[8]

In Tewkesbury the Americans were accorded a Civic Reception by Mayor Brown in February 1943. Nevertheless, Miss Day reminds us that not all local people enhanced this developing special relationship:

"some shopkeepers ripped them off shamefully..charged 2/6d. for 1/- portion offish and chips. When they realised this they asked their girlfriends to shop for them." [3]

Her own personal archive contains notices of various social activities. There was the Tewkesbury Abbey Fellowship which presented a "Social in the Abbey Schoolroom on Thursday, 6th. Jan at 7.30 p.m. 6d." (2.5p) including refreshments. "On Saturday 24th. April 1943" there was an "RA. Searchlight Dance at the Swan Hotel 8 p.m.-II .45 p.m. costing 4/- (20p.) The Americans of the "Sergeants' Mess, 220 Coy P.C." reciprocated with a "Dance at the Mythe, Thursday 16 September at 8 p.m. [3]

Mrs. Care was also very positive:

"Churches in the area were especially good to service people...the local people were very tolerant of the upheaval that this invasion of their town caused..] never experienced any unpleasantness during those years'" Recalling that people used to travel on bicycles or by hitchhiking, she points out that "it's an anomaly really that there we were in the middle of a terrible war, yet we felt safer in most instances than we do today." [4]

The same U.S./Mexican G.I. recalled that "all local people were glad to see us. We had lots of oranges and candy for the kids."[1] Sergeant Care agreed to some extent with the cupboard love theory:

"It was not unusual to find some of the resident kids in our chow line as our guests. Children are great ambassadors - which helped to break down any •real or imaginary' barriers."[4]

It is clear that the Americans were keen to win over hearts and minds. One would expect 'Stars and Stripes' to highlight such activities. We find headlines like:

"General depot gives $1.100 to help 11 blitzed orphans"
"2nd.largest contribution from a GD. in England"[10]

In an article headed "2 Ordnance outfits sponsor blitzed orphans" Col. C.W.Richmond claimed that his was the "best ordnance outfit and the best fed outfit in England." [8]

Sergeant Care was involved in what we would call 'community outreach'. He wrote with hindsight that:

"We delivered firewood from the massive wooden crates to...and raised funds for, other urgently needed senices and equipment at Tewkesbury Hospital. We also went there on Sundays to play musicfor patients." [4]

His archive of photographs and documents supports this assertion. He evidently played in a band: "This is me with the violin and my American country music band. We played at the Tewkesbury Hospital whenever we had some time off." He has also sent a poster:

"TOWN HALL TEWKESBURY
a grand
American Variety Show
in aid of Tewkesbury Hospital
On Wednesday & Thursday, June 21 & 22, 1944
Twice nightly at 6.20 & 8.15 p.m.
Tickets...1/6 each
(Sutherland Printer Tewkesbury) "

There are also photographs taken in May 1944 and 1945 at Worcester, England of the "Yard Bird Follies - an Anglo-American soldiers' show for the benefit of Allied P.O.W.'s. First presented in 1944 but repeated in 1945 because of its success. Yours truly fourth from left, bottom row"[4]

The End of the War

'D-Day' was the final validation of the work of 'G-25' and it is not surprising that Miss Day found that "the weeks before D-Day were chaotic...the canteen was jam-packed every night." [5] This is confirmed by a correspondent who lived in Church Street near the Abbey: 

"The American tanks would pour through the town mostly at night on their way down to the coast ready for the invasion, Church Street being so narrow the tanks used to mount the footpath and miss our front door and window by inches." [11] We have noted that many leading U.S. troops were transferred from Ashchurch to their new headquarters near Paris from December 1944 to January 1945. Joseph Care, however, remained in the area and has supplied a photograph entitled "VE Day 1945 Tewkesbury England" which he subsequently annotated "Happy Day!"[4]

Miss Day remembers that some things improved after the end of the war: 

"After VE Day we had more entertainment and in 1946 films from America that hadnit been released over here; 'San Francisco', 'Johnny Anger and *You Were Never Lovelier" [3]

At the end of April 1946 the American Red Cross became the NAAFI: 

"The contrast was too cruel. The NAAFI was so shabby and so poorly equipped and I felt bad that our boys couldn't have something better. So I was glad to leave." [3] Ashchurch Camp reverted to the stewardship of the R.A.S.C. and one assumes that the role of the camp in the town's life gradually diminished to prewar proportions. 

Reunions

In their newsletter of March 1944, Mrs Staton mused that 90% of the veterans were now 74 years of age. Since 1973 reunions have been organised every two years. Some of the locations were; 

  • 1973 Greensboro - 29 in attendance 
  • 1981 Nashville - 153 (the highest) 
  • 1993 Dearborn MI - 42[10] 

Inevitably newsletters now carry news of illnesses and deaths. Consequently the visit of 1992, the first official pilgrimage since the war, was of great significance for these men who had lived in Tewkesbury and achieved so much at the tender age of 20 years. This "Happy Reunion" of sixteen veterans and their wives was much photographed both in Tewkesbury and at other stages of their visit. 

The 'Statesville Record and Landmark" emphasised that the visit was: 

"Much nostalgia They walked on the same sidewalks that they had walked upon 50 years ago: looked up at the spire of the Abbey and felt its friendly and comforting eye watching over them as it had done years before - its mellow yellow brick (sic) nestled amongst the shrubbery of its lovely grounds in the heart of the town. The English people proved that they were still the extra special friends who had made their three-year stay there brighter and reaffirmed the high regard they still hold for America and its people. It was indeed the trip ofa lifetime." [12]

It was a great privilege for the Tewkesbury Historical Society to be able to share this historic occasion, and we are very grateful for the help which the '622 Association' gave for our exhibition in May 1994 to commemorate D-Day, which also forms the basis of this article. They have a correspondent in Tewkesbury, Mr. Ron Allen, who was a boy in the 'G-25' days, but who recently retired from civilian work at the camp. 

Other veterans have made private visits. The experiences of Mr. and Mrs. James Ponder were reported in the 'Echo' of 29 July 1994: 

"Golden Days for Late Honeymoon 

James Ponder, now aged 70, and his wife Marion, 68, formerly of East Street and Chance Street School, were married in Cheltenham in 1944 and, because they gained only a three-day pass, enjoyed no honeymoon. With the others he was then posted back to France but in 1946 moved back to the U.SA. " In the article Mr.Ponder remarked that: "We liked Tewkesbury but it has changed so much. The biggest change for me is that everyone is so busy. The people have changed. Ashchurch was one of the happiest times of my life but nothing stays the same for ever." 

Mrs.Ponder proved an acute observer: 

"So many shops have closed but the villages seem to have remained unspoilt." [9] 

Perhaps we should leave the last word to Mrs. Care: 

"I have no regrets, I've had a good life here, but will always remember Tewkesbury with great affection. We visit there every time we return to England." [4] 

References

  1. Correspondence John A Spiller 
  2. Gloucester Record Office 
  3. Miss Norah Days Archive 
  4. Mr. Joseph Care's Archive: Letters written in February 1994 
  5. 'Reruns No. 74, June 1994 
  6. Bill Rennison: 'G.I. Joe at Ashchurch' T.H.S. Bulletin No.2 
  7. Recollections by Ladies' Group at Holy Trinity Church, ed. Mrs. J.Devereux
  8. Staton Archive 
  9. Gloucester Echo Archive 
  10. 'War Brides of World War II' ; E.F.Shubert & B.S.Scibitta; Penguin 1989 
  11. Karen Rogers, Tewkesbury School Yl1 1994-95 research project 
  12. Statesville Record & Landmark, Statesville NC, 11.10.92 
  13. Note 10, John Dixon, T.HS. Bulletin No. 2 

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