Written by Nicole Hansson
Sometimes we have moments in our life when we just have to pinch ourselves. The reunion on the Queen Mary for the WWII War Brides Association was one such moment. This iconic ship, built in 1936, was a luxury weekly express service between Southampton, Cherbourg and New York City. It is now moored permanently at Long Beach, California.
WWII War Brides and their families from over 11 different countries, including Australia, stayed on board for five memorable days. Gathering together and celebrating shared stories and experiences is an annual occurrence, but to do so in a breathtaking setting, with such strong connections to many of these women, only added to the historical significance of this event.
The Art Décor inspired vessel was converted to a troop ship. In March 1940, Queen Mary, in preparation for WWII, had all luxury items removed and stored in warehouses in New York and in Sydney. Inside, stateroom furniture and decorations were removed and replaced with triple-tiered wooden bunks, which were later replaced by standard bunks. The ship was painted navy grey and became known as the “Grey Ghost.” She traveled in and out of Sydney, Australia, delivering troops to European fronts until the Japanese bombed the Pacific in 1941.
This graceful and stylish grand dame of the sea has incredible stories that occurred throughout its life. Some of the British war brides that attended actually sailed on the Queen Mary from South Hampton to San Francisco in 1946, as young brides to be reunited with their American husbands. It was so inspiring to spend time with women who convey a living history through their experiences and wisdom that still bears relevance to women’s lives today.
We shared dinners, Hollywood and L.A. Farmers Markets tours, and so many laughs along the way. A wonderful exhibition of original bridal gowns on deck was curated by Beverly Sollars and a presentation was given by the talented artist Bev Tosh about her artworks of the women painted in their Bridal gowns.
Channel Nine Australia spent the final day filming and interviewing the Australian War brides paying tribute to their stories. The War Brides all cherish their childhood days back in Australia, still feeling very connected to their home. Two such poignant and endearing observations by Hazel Walker, 94, born in Brisbane and Dorothy Pence, 90, born in Sydney, are seen in the interview.
Hazel: ”I knew it was the last time that I would see this and so I went and stood on the back verandah and thought, I will never see this again, I will never see this again.”
Dorothy: ”What I wouldn’t give for a meat pie right now!”
Hazel’s humour and vigour provided a constant wonderful commentary on life in America, then and now. Numerous bonds unify these women, but the strongest was the holy grail of “a decent cuppa”. We lost count of the times we desperately begged for a hot………no really hot cup of tea! That and a lack of proper fruitcake is one of the “occupational hazards” for Hazel living in the States.
After the final farewell breakfast, each group of women took it in turns to sing the National Anthem from their country of origin. The words and melodies still sung with the spark of passion and fervor born from when they were much younger women. The final anthem was that of their adopted homeland, the Star Spangled Banner, the one that they have all been singing in unison for over 68 years; sounds and images reverberating until we meet again at the next reunion in Philadelphia 2016.
Photo credits: Nicole Hansson