When 1.5 million American troops started arriving on British shores in 1942, they captivated war-weary British girls – then left a trail of broken hearts and unplanned pregnancies. Kate Thompson celebrates the women who lived through those heady days
Getting the party started – American troops and their friends celebrate VE Day in Piccadilly Circus, central London, 8 May 1945
It’s a steamy summer night in wartime Soho. It starts as a low rumble, then the ground begins to tremble. Theatregoers look around nervously, but this is no bombing raid. The ‘steeplechase race’ to get the coveted front-row seats of the Windmill Theatre has begun.
‘Shake it, sister!’ whoops a particularly enthusiastic GI as he vaults the red-velvet seat and takes the lead. Soon the whole front row is filled with boisterous, cigar-chomping young men, all eager to get close to the beautiful young women on stage. Restrained London audiences have never seen behaviour like it. Britain has never seen anything like it.
In the spring of 1942, the Yanks, as they were known, didn’t just leapfrog over theatre seats – an entire generation of young American men crossed an ocean to arrive on our war-torn shores.
Eighty years ago this week – on 7 December 1941 – the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, a US Navy base in Hawaii, which prompted the United States to enter the Second World War and join the Allies in the fight against the Axis powers of Japan, Germany and Italy. Over the next two years, an influx of US aircrew and soldiers arrived in the UK ready to enter Nazi-occupied Europe. These GIs (which stands for Government Issue) made up what is now known as the ‘friendly invasion’.
By May 1944 – in preparation for the Allied D-Day invasion of Normandy, which would take place the following month – there were over 1.5 million American GIs crammed on to our scruffy, threadbare island. They were better paid and better dressed than the British Tommies. A private in the British Army was paid 14 shillings a week, whereas a private in the US Army received £3 and 8 shillings. Their smartly tailored uniforms, which made it difficult to tell a private from an officer, stood in stark contrast to the British troops’ plain serge battledress.
With their chewing gum, louche demeanour, exotic accents and Lucky Strike smokes, they weren’t just a welcome sight, they were virtually a different species. To beleaguered British women they were a glamorous, colourful escape from a world of powdered egg and war work. Soon, the GIs were schmoozing their way down every high street and whisking British women off their feet, showering them with gifts and showing them a daring new dance move called the jitterbug. To many girls, whose only previous experience of Americans= had been on the silver screen, they shone like Hollywood movie stars.
On arrival, the US War Department issued its GIs with a 48-page handbook entitled Instructions for American Servicemen, which told them: ‘The British have been bombed night after night… remember that crossing the ocean doesn’t automatically make you a hero. There are housewives in aprons and youngsters in knee pants who have lived through more high explosives in air raids than many soldiers saw in the last war…’
As a historical novelist, I have interviewed hundreds of wartime women and there is one word always guaranteed to raise a wry smile – Yank! ‘They were so charming to us,’ Doris Seacoll, from Poplar, East London, told me when I spoke to her several years ago. ‘When I was 17, I’d doll myself up and head to the Lyceum to dance my cares away with the Americans. They showed me all the steps and we’d dance to big-band music. I was never short of a partner, but you had to watch them,’ the 95-year-old laughed. ‘I never fell for their lines. My dad would have killed me.’
Just married – Joy Beaver Beebe and her GI Carl, 1945.
Cathy Caley from Bethnal Green, East London, put it more bluntly in a former interview. ‘Heard the one about the new utility knickers? One Yank and they’re off,’ quipped the 88-year-old. ‘There’s a bar called Dirty Dicks opposite Liverpool Street Station where they all drank and a lot of women used to go “soldiering”, as it was called. They targeted the Yanks with military precision for whatever they could get out of them: perfume, cigarettes and nylons. I was too young to go, but the older women all gossiped about it in the factories the next morning. There was one married woman who got pregnant by a GI. She couldn’t be sure who the father was so she used her husband’s name as her baby son’s first name and used the GI’s as his middle name.’
Three miles west of Dirty Dicks in a more salubrious part of town, London’s Piccadilly was transformed into Little America and it was where every homesick GI headed on his furlough (leave time). When the American Red Cross Club, known as Rainbow Corner, opened in November 1942, the key was thrown away in a symbolic gesture to show that as long as US troops were fighting in Europe, the club would remain open 24 hours a day. The dining room could seat up to 2,000 and there were weekly dances. The tempting smell of doughnuts and hamburgers drifted out on to the street and a jukebox pumped out Glenn Miller’s wartime favourite ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’.
With their chewing gum and exotic accents the GIs were virtually a different species
Unlike at Dirty Dicks, there was an air of respectability at Rainbow Corner – and not every girl could gain entry. Phyllis Broadbent was one of the lucky ones, although once inside, she was more struck by the refreshment than by the men. ‘We tried a new drink called Coca-Cola. To our sugar-starved palates, it was delicious.’
Like Doris, Phyllis, then in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), was always careful around the Americans. In those straitened times, pregnancy out of wedlock wasn’t just scandalous, it had devastating consequences. It took enormous courage to survive as an unmarried mother, and a ‘bastard’ child was treated like a second-class citizen. There were, however, plenty of women who did become pregnant by American soldiers. In wartime, the mentality of ‘live for today, for tomorrow we might die’ acted as a potent aphrodisiac, especially when faced with the easy charm of a well-dressed GI.
By April 1943, the Provost Marshal of the US Army saw fit to issue a booklet: How to Stay Out of Trouble. It seems not every American soldier read it. When they began to be called back to action in preparation for D-day, GIs didn’t just leave behind a trail of broken hearts, but thousands of illegitimate babies. There are no official figures and estimates vary wildly between 7,000 to a whopping 100,000 babies born out of wedlock. Abortion was illegal and dangerous, so a hastily arranged secret adoption was often the only option for many women.
However, not all illegitimate children were given up. When RAF engineer Les Chipperfield from Diss in Norfolk was demobbed in 1945, he found his young wife Annie (who he hadn’t seen in five years because he had served in North Africa) cradling a one-year-old baby boy called Gordon. Les and 21-year-old Annie had been married just one day when war was declared in 1939. She had, he discovered, attended a dance at a US Army base in Suffolk in his absence where she’d found comfort in the arms of GI Harold Blessett from Mississippi. Soon after her romantic liaison, Annie had discovered she was pregnant but refused to give up the baby for adoption.
Let’s dance! British girls getting into the groove with GIs in London on VE Day
In an astonishing act of understanding, Les not only forgave her transgression, but raised young Gordon as his own. ‘It was only after my mother died that Les confessed, “I’m not your real father. Your mother had a one-night stand with a GI.” I was flabbergasted,’ admits 77-year-old retired coach repairer Gordon Chipperfield from Watton in Norfolk. ‘Suddenly it made sense why Mum never wanted to talk about the war.’
Gordon waited until Les died in 1986 before searching for his GI father. In 2016, he had a DNA test which proved who his real father was. Sadly Harold had died 40 years previously in 1976, but Gordon discovered he did have two half-sisters and a half-brother. In 2017, he went out to Mississippi to visit them. ‘I was treated like royalty by my new family,’ says Gordon. ‘Apparently, my GI father never forgot me, his English war babe.’
After mum died, dad told me my real father was an american GI
Not all romantic liaisons ended with skeletons in the closet: 70,000 British women became GI brides. ‘The US Army wasn’t particularly keen on its servicemen being distracted from their real purpose – preparing for D-day – and did its best to discourage such marriages,’ explains Duncan Barrett, co-author of GI Brides: The Wartime Girls Who Crossed the Atlantic for Love. ‘GIs had to obtain permission from their commanding officer or face a court martial, and couples were subject to interviews and background checks. The lucky ones made it to the altar before D-day; the others waited anxiously for their men to come over on leave, and arranged hurried nuptials,’ Barrett says. ‘But even once the war was over, the waiting wasn’t. The US Army’s priority was getting its men home, not reuniting them with their brides.’
The ‘wallflower wives’, as they were termed by the press, grew restless, and on 11 October 1945 hundreds marched on the US embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square demanding ships to America. Finally, in December that year, Congress passed the War Brides Act, giving GI brides non-quota immigration status (in other words, exempting them from the quotas that were in force for other immigrants to the US), and transportation at the Army’s expense. A fleet of ships was then assigned to Operation War Bride. ‘British women waved goodbye to family and friends knowing it could be years before they saw them again, if ever,’ explains Barrett.
One of these pioneering brides was Joy Beaver Beebe. Originally from Bexleyheath in Kent, the 96-year old great-great-grandmother now lives in Oregon in the Northwest US. After the death of her father William in 1941, Joy – just 16 years old – was thrust into the role of breadwinner, supporting her mother Renee and two younger brothers. Joy slept under a Morrison cage air-raid shelter and got up at the crack of dawn to catch the train into London, dodging bombs to get to her work as a typist. For Joy, escape from all the danger and privation was found in the wartime dancehalls. ‘I used to go to the Embassy Ballroom in Bexley,’ Joy says. ‘It was a popular haunt for the GIs and that drew a lot of girls.’
It was there, in September 1944, that 19-year-old Joy met bespectacled GI Carl Beebe. ‘He wasn’t full of swagger like the other GIs were,’ she says. ‘He didn’t tell me the streets of New York were paved with gold!’ Carl, who was 24, worked for US Army Intelligence as a codebreaker at Hall Place in Bexley, an offshoot of Bletchley Park.
Phyllis Broadbent, 94, with a photograph of herself in 1944. She says she loved the Yanks – ‘for their Coca-Cola!’
Soon, he and Joy were officially an item. ‘He was polite and kind. He was always bringing me flowers and was so thoughtful to my mother. He knew we didn’t have much so brought her treats, like peanut butter, which we’d never tasted before.’
Joy and her mother were won over and when he proposed after three months of courtship, she accepted. On 28 April 1945, Joy and Carl were married in Welling, Kent in a church with a ‘blown-off’ roof. Joy looked radiant in an exquisite white silk dress one of her brothers had managed to source on the black market. It snowed during the ceremony, with water dripping through the hole in the roof, but when they stepped outside, the sun came out. Ten days after they exchanged vows, Victory in Europe was declared, but Carl’s war wasn’t yet over. He was reassigned to Germany to decipher Japanese codes before the final victory in August that year.
It wasn’t until February 1948 that the young couple was able to set sail for America with their nearly two-year-old son Philip. They settled in Oregon, had four children and enjoyed 51 years of happy marriage before Carl’s death in 1995, aged 75.
Today, Joy volunteers with the National War Brides Association, a support network of war brides living in the US. As well as keeping alive the stories of these brave women, she also honours the 362,561 US servicemen killed during the Second World War. Eighty years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Joy and countless families like hers will remember them.
For more information on tracing family links to US military personnel, visit gitrace.org