British Babes in American Arms

MY brother and I once made the front page of The Christian Science Monitor. It was on Aug. 23, 1940, as he, aged six, and I, aged eight, lined up for the United States immigration inspectors. The caption said of my brother, ``Gerald's impression of the proceedings seems a bit questionable.'' He had his tongue stuck out at a photographer. There has never been any question, however, about our impression of five years as evacuees from Britain to this country during World War II. A documentary about that transatlantic evacuation will be broadcast on American public television around Dec. 26 (check local listings), entitled ``Orphans of the Storm.''

My brother, who saw the program recently in Britain, said it treats the subject sympathetically, but adds, ``I wish that the gratitude people like us feel, who personally benefited, could have been expressed more strongly.''

Many Americans are familiar with the fact, popularized in the movie ``Hope and Glory,'' that during World War II British children were evacuated for safety to the countryside. But less widely known is the fact that 15,000 to 20,000 were also sent overseas to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, and the United States.

On June 17, 1940, the day France capitulated, the British war cabinet approved a plan that all children between five and 16, irrespective of their circumstances, could be sent abroad. This was partly because up to that point the option had only been available to those who could afford it. The one condition: Mothers could not accompany their children.

Within a month 210,000 applications were received. ``Never before in history,'' as is stated in the documentary, ``had a country considered evacuating a whole generation of children.'' At the same time a Gallup poll in the US that August indicated that 5 million American families might be ready to take in British children. The prospect of a German invasion was imminent; some 500 civilians were being killed or wounded each day by enemy bombing. But parents who responded to the opportunity never dreamed that it would mean years of separation.

Everything was arranged for the first ship to sail to Canada on July 21. But in early July the unescorted Arandora Star was sunk, and though the children aboard were rescued, the government said such ships henceforth had to travel in convoys. So it was that my brother and I were among hundreds of children who sailed on Aug. 10 in the Duchess of York and other passenger liners in what was then one of the largest convoys ever assembled. We were escorted by six destroyers and the battleship HMS Revenge. Eighteen ships carrying children sailed that summer. But on Sept. 13 the City of Benares was sunk, 77 children drowned, and the government forbade any more to go. It is doubtful whether enough shipping and escorts could have been made available for all who had been signed up.

The first Christmas in Boston in 1940 was special for us as we adapted to American ways and the absence of our parents, and were taken to the heart of a large and caring and musical American family. It was an introduction to a New England winter with skates and snowshoes and Flexible Flyers and ``Twas the night before Christmas.''

But Britain was not far from our thoughts as my brother laid out his toy soldiers and boats on the bedroom floor in a reenactment of the evacuation at Dunkirk and I had a painting of a Spitfire over the Channel hung in the school assembly hall. We also recorded songs and poems to send to our parents who were in the midst of the London blitz.

In the US we felt we did our bit for the war effort, spotting for planes from the tower of the school chapel, collecting scrap metal, saving toward war bonds, and, if the PBS documentary is to be believed, as part of a geopolitical plan to bring the United States into the war on the side of Britain. Certainly, even at our tender age we felt we were ambassadors.

I was there in the midst of the mostly uniformed crowd, a small but very proud English boy, when Winston Churchill spoke in Harvard Yard in 1943 on the importance of postwar Anglo-American cooperation. ``I preach continually,'' the British prime minister said on that occasion, ``the doctrine of the fraternal association of our peoples, not for any purpose of gaining invidious material advantage for either of them, not for territorial aggrandizement, or the vain pomp of earthly domination, but for the sake of service to mankind and for the honor that comes to those who faithfully serve great causes.''

We were fortunate, as so many were, to be with American families who were Anglophiles. In our case the father, Walter Hinchman, had captained the American cricket team, the Gentlemen of Philadelphia, and the mother, Julia, had been born in England. Hinchman, who had taught English at Groton, was then doing the same at Milton Academy.

Living in Boston, we imbibed something of the East Coast perspective on the world. In fact, my father came on a military mission to this country in the middle of the war. Visiting us, and wanting to unbend a bit, he said, ``I suppose you find things `swell' in Boston.'' I apparently replied, ``Daddy, we don't say `swell' in Boston.''

Our patriotism and V-for-Victory spirit must have been a bit of a trial to the kids around us. (Though I was included earlier this year in the 40th reunion of what would have been my graduating class.) But we quickly became, at least in outward appearance, thoroughly American. I had a crew cut, wore cords or jeans, played baseball, football, and hockey, took part - on the American side - in a play about Nathan Hale, and was even entrusted at one point at school with the lowering and raising of the American flag. I can still recite the American presidents - up to Cleveland. I can't go any further because the war ended and we were sent home.

For five years an American family with whom we had had no previous connection looked after us as if we were their own - and refused any financial remuneration. It was a demonstration of American hospitality and generosity. And returning to Britain we were enriched by our many and varied experiences.

Our parents, who had been totally immersed in the war effort, may have been a little irritated by our belief that America won the war. An uncle, an artillery officer who had been shelled by his American allies, may have been a little jaundiced in his view of the Yanks. But the predominant thought of our family and of the nation, as my brother says, was one of great gratitude to America and the Americans and what they had done to help preserve liberty in the world. It has affected for good my attitude to this country ever since.

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