A Very Different War: The Story of an Evacuee Sent to the U.S. During World War II

It was only later that we realized how lucky we had been when we arrived in the United States to stay with a Quaker family in Moorestown, New Jersey. We did not know the family who collected us at the Philadelphia railroad station in August 1940 to take us home with them, but they soon made us feel quite at home.

Our parents had decided before war broke out that their two daughters, Blanche, aged 10 years, and I, Louise, aged 8 years, would be safer sent away from England. Why had they made this decision? It would seem there were a number of reasons. We lived just outside Plymouth in southwest England near an important navy base, which meant that as soon as hostilities began the harbor was a target for German enemy bombs.

At that time there was a strong feeling in Britain of an imminent Nazi invasion. It was thought the Nazis would invade the country as they had already marched into Holland, Belgium, France, Denmark, and Norway. The small British Channel Islands near the coast of France had also been occupied by the time we left England in August 1940. The German forces were that close to landing in mainland Britain.

More importantly, our parents had been helping refugees fleeing the Nazis from continental Europe before the war began. People from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Germany had passed through our house seeking safety, something any invading authorities would view as treasonable, particularly as some were Jews. Hence there was a felt need to get my sister and me right away from danger. My younger brother stayed at home, as he was only three years old and too young to leave home.

After a frenzy of getting ready we left London and said our last goodbyes to our mother, not knowing we would not see her again for five years. We traveled by train with many other evacuees, each of us clutching a gas mask, and with name labels sewn into our coats in case we got lost. We boarded the Duchess of Atholl, experiencing our last air raid in Liverpool station before embarking for the voyage to Montreal. The battle of the Atlantic was still raging; between September 1939 and June 1940 over two million tons of shipping had been sunk by Nazi U-boats.

The journey began with us all being seasick on the first day, which was named Black Saturday. Only some survived this, which, fortunately for our party of 15, included our escort. I can remember depth charges being dropped by our destroyer escort in fear of submarines. Then later, once we neared the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, we saw icebergs: magnificent blocks of ice with blue shadows floating in an azure sea. Memories of the Titanic were not so distant, so they were viewed with awe.

Later we learned that out of the 28 ships in the convoy 11 were sunk. How lucky we were. The next boat on this mercy voyage with evacuees, the City of Benares, was sunk and many children were drowned. Thereafter the scheme was stopped.

The home we had left behind was in the country, on the edge of the city of Plymouth, where my father grew tomatoes in greenhouses. The English climate is not warm enough to grow them outdoors as, we were to discover, they do in New Jersey. It was a happy, comfortable, middle-class life I had experienced at home, with help in the house for my mother. As my parents were Quakers, Sundays meant going to Friends meeting and Sunday school each week. It was this fact more than any other that enabled my sister and me to fit so easily into our new home.

When my sister and I were clearing out my mother’s home after her death in 1995, we made the exciting discovery of all the correspondence she had received from our U.S. foster mother, Nancy Wood, and from us throughout the war. They are such good letters from a wise and caring woman telling of our day-to-day life in Moorestown that I felt they should not be left in a box but shared with a wider audience.

On our arrival she wrote: "Your little girls seem as well and as happy as can be. To me they seem almost a miracle; they have fitted into our scheme of life so easily. There have been no tears at all, not once, and the house is full of laughter all day long—as a house should be with children in it."

The Wood family consisted of Dick, an editor of The Friend, the journal of Orthodox Friends in Philadelphia; and his wife, Nancy Wood, who had two daughters older than my sister: Rebecca Wood Robinson and Anne Wood, now at Medford Leas, New Jersey; and a son my age, Richard Wood Jr., who became a farmer in Freeport, Maine. He and I soon became playmates. I was a tomboy and enjoyed playing cowboys and Indians with him and his friends and soon became a devotee of the Tom Mix radio program each evening with a story of derring-do from the day before, and of the Lone Ranger accompanied by the stirring music of the William Tell Overture.

Then began a happy U.S. childhood. We attended Moorestown Friends School and settled happily into the routine, taking on board the Quaker ethos of the school very easily. Because we threw ourselves into all the activities with great enthusiasm, making friends with other pupils was soon accomplished, even though I was that little "English Girl" who stood out from the crowd—as I was to do later when I returned to England in 1945 and was viewed as the "American Girl."

In winter, we enjoyed sledding on the small hill by the school, one of the few hills in a flat region, and ice skating on the local lake. Cold weather with snow was something we only rarely had back in Devon, so having it regularly in a New Jersey winter was a great delight. Then came the summer, and thinking of the long hot vacation brings more memories of outdoor sports. We stayed at Camp Dark Waters on the bank of the Rancocas River (still there today) where swimming and games, as well as campfires and singing, could be enjoyed.

With my high spirits it was not unusual for me to get into trouble of one sort or another, and the admonition was usually along these lines: "Lou, does thy conscience not tell thee this is not the way to behave?" Interestingly, members of the family were still in the habit of using "thee" in their conversation with close relatives and Friends with a capital F. Other punishments were being sent to one’s room, as squabbles were deemed to be the result of tiredness and a time for necessary reflection.

From time to time, to ease the pressure of looking after a family of five, I would be sent to visit Uncle Charlie and Aunt Anna Evans, two of the many Wood relations, who lived in the district. This for me was a real treat. Uncle Charlie was an amateur archaeologist, and I was enthralled by all he had to tell me about times past and the history of Native Americans. It is no surprise that I took up the study of geology later on.

Communication between the two continents was by letter; we did not use telephones across the ocean then, let alone the e-mails of the future. Aunt Nancy tried to write every week. My sister and I were also expected to write back to England, but as the years went by it seemed a very far-off place, and we knew our mother was getting news from a much better correspondent than we were. In response to a letter of concern from our mother, Nancy Wood’s response was thus:

I showed the girls your letter about their writing. I am puzzled and sad about the situation, although it is quite understandable. The gap is becoming too wide. I’m not sure that school exercises, which would be almost punishments, are a good basis for a happy and natural interchange of thoughts. I know that required jobs are good discipline and the children have plenty, or at least a fair share of such, both at home and at school. Neither our home nor our school being completely "Progressive." The thing on which both Dick and I put great emphasis is in trying to help the individual to develop in character as well as intellect.

The whole Friends community in Moorestown helped in ways they could with the extra expense incurred by the Woods in caring for us. We had scholarships to attend the Friends school. The local doctor, Emlen Stokes, made no charge; nor did the dentist, oculist or ENT specialist who took out Blanche’s tonsils. Suitable hand-me-downs would also come our way. We were not the only evacuees from England in town, so we were part of an extended family.

By 1944 the end of the war was in sight, and the adults in my life were discussing how we could return to England. By 1945 my mother in England managed to obtain a passage to the United States to visit and meet the Wood family who had been caring for her daughters for five years, and to take us home to Plymouth. By now Blanche, who had moved onto Westtown School (where Anne Wood was to become head of girls later), was not at all sure she wanted to return. She felt really happy where she was.

My mother wrote to my father at the time describing the situation before our return:

I’m dreading the last days here; they will be at fever heat. Blanche is feeling dreadfully torn. Our biggest task is to gain their love and respect and, oh, it’s going to be hard. They have received me as an unpleasant necessity, poor darlings, and quite frankly and uncompromisingly prefer Aunt Nancy [Wood]. It is hard to keep a festering jealousy from rising up inside me. Perhaps it is not jealousy but just a new sort of heartbreak that has gone with this whole business over these five years. But it is not only our heartbreak but theirs as well. Theirs that I do not come up to expectations, that I do not identify myself with modes and manners here are so obviously not ours at home.

This sums up the problem of readjustment to England for everyone concerned. We returned home in August 1945, almost five years to the day from when we left. We traveled on the Nieu Amsterdam, still fitted out in its war-time duties as a troop ship, bedbugs included. The Britain we returned to was battle-weary and poor. Rationing was strict, and we found the austerity an enormous contrast to the luxuries of life we had had in the U.S. Blanche and I gradually readjusted, and for me the Sidcot Friends School I attended back in England made the transition bearable, even though it was boarding and once more I was not living at home.

Finally, I can say that the continuing thread of Quakerism in my life through these years enabled me to weather the trauma and come out a stronger personality.

Louise Milbourn

Louise Milbourn, who lives in Cambridge, England, is a retired teacher of geography and geology. To inquire about the availability of Louise's full story, A Very Different War, in book form, e-mail Su Wood at suwood@verizon.net