With this country’s dismal economy bringing unemployment and a collapse of the housing market, Americans are fearful and pessimistic about the future. It is not easy to believe that these times will pass, but the nation has been here before. Recent books and television mini-series celebrating Americans who fought World War II to a successful conclusion make it easy to overlook how disruptive and desperate that time was and how uncertain the prospect of final victory. We do well to reflect upon the tenacity and courage of ordinary people of that time when we feel over-whelmed by the uncertainty and upheaval of these days. Maybe my story will encourage Americans not to extinguish hope.
Four weeks ago, I traveled 70 years back in time for a return to the Santa Monica home I knew as a war refugee from 1941 to 1945. Until this trip, I had never revisited that old home address or the Roosevelt Elementary School I attended.
The long journey to California started in my father’s family home in Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands occupied by the Germans in World War II. Shortly after the outbreak of war, my mother told my father, his parents and his five siblings that Guernsey’s proximity to France made it unsafe. In spite of opposition from the family, she removed my older brother and me to England and the three of us subsequently endured a 10-day crossing of the dangerous Atlantic to the United States, eventually settling in Santa Monica, Calif. As refugees, we were the recipients of extraordinary generosity from ordinary Americans during our cross-country travel to California. Full appreciation of that generosity only came to me in later years. (My mother’s decision proved well-founded. Both my paternal grandparents died of starvation during the German occupation of the island.)
At the start of the war, thousands of British children, unaccompanied by their parents, were sent to safety in America, Canada, Australia and other havens. The price of safety was high: most parents were not to see their children again for almost five years. The British government stopped this evacuation program after one vessel was sunk by a U-boat with the loss of many children.
I remember much about our stay in Santa Monica. My mother had to work to support her family. We raised chickens so that eggs could be sold. We dug holes, erected posts and strung wire to enclose the birds. Gasoline rationing existed and I think my mother traded eggs for gas! There were the classes and games at the Roosevelt School; summer camp; the movie house showing Saturday serials of “Terry and the Pirates;” and the drug store offering comic books and candy bars.
When the European war ended, Britain actively sought the return of these children to replace wartime losses. Thus it was that my mother, brother and I crossed the Atlantic again and returned to England. So speedy was the whole relocation that, when VJ Day was celebrated, I stood in the huge crowd in front of Buckingham Palace.
When my mother died in 1994, I learned what the absence of children had meant for my own grandmother. Sorting through my mother’s possessions, I found a postcard sent to me in America by my maternal grandmother in England. Dated Easter 1941, a perilous time when Britain stood alone against Germany, it was sent to Master Martin Walter, c/o British Consulate, Los Angeles, California, USA and forwarded to 468 22nd St., Santa Monica. The message is an admixture of relief at my safe arrival in America and the pain and grief of a grandmother who ached for her daughter and grandsons, not knowing if she will ever see them again. The message on the postcard reads:
“Sweetest little boy Martin: Your Grams is always thinking of you and hopes you will have a lovely Easter. I shall be thinking of you all. Do you ever listen to ‘The Children’s Hour?’ Do you hear me say ‘good night’ to you and John when the speaker says, ‘Good night children everywhere?’ I’m always so sad when I hear him say that, but thankful you got away in safety. Don’t forget Grams. Lots of love, Grams.”
To this day, I am unable to read silently this postcard message without my eyes watering and I cannot read it aloud without my voice breaking. Happily, I did see my grandmother after the war. Until I possessed this postcard again, however, I did not realize how much grandparents love — they may pass from the family scene before grandchildren gain such appreciation. Now, with grandchildren of my own, I see there is great joy in repaying that love forward — to one’s own grandchildren.
By way of a postscript, I mention that, in 1954, I went to university in Canada before moving permanently in 1966 to the United States and becoming a citizen. I have never forgotten the generosity and decency of Americans and I marvel at the country’s “can do” spirit. We must keep both alive.
Martin L.B. Walter is a fellow of McGill University’s Entrepreneurial Centre and serves as board chairman of AIM’s International Business Council. A retired business executive with extensive international experience, he is also director of a Europe-based property company.