|Australian WWII War Brides of American Servicemen:
Myths, Stereotypes And Realities
It is estimated (Bolton, 1991; Moore, 1981; Potts & Strauss, 1987; Potts & Potts, 1985) that between twelve and fifteen thousand young Australian women married American servicemen, leaving families, friends and all things familiar to follow their hearts to live in the United States.
Contemporary perceptions of women who married American servicemen at this time were often based on myths and stereotypes which saw the ‘GI brides’ as ‘good-time girls’ pursuing sexual pleasure, and as ‘gold-diggers’ who were hungry for money (Lake, 1995; Campbell, 1989). Such ideas related to the sexualised image of women that proliferated during WWII and, according to Kate Darian-Smith (1995, p. 120), it was because of their liaisons with American servicemen in particular that women were perceived as ‘“saboteurs” who spread VD, ignored family duties and encouraged industrial absenteeism’. In this context ‘GI Brides’ were seen to be swept off their feet by ‘glamorous Yanks’ who resembled romantic images of ‘Hollywood heroes’. It was generally thought that these young women married hastily, often as the result of ‘one-night-stands’ or an unwanted pregnancy, before heading off on an adventurous journey to an exciting future in a new land.
This paper challenges the power of these perceptions, drawing on oral testimony from more than 60 Australian war brides living in the United States, to demonstrate the reality of their experiences. In examining these interviews, it is important to be aware of the limitations of this research methodology. Historians (Ashton, P., 1991, p.3; Darian-Smith, 1995; Featherstone, 2005, p.238) acknowledge that individual memories, particularly of the distant past, can be unreliable, distorted, supplemented and influenced by historical memory, shaped over the years by visual media and publications. It is claimed (Featherstone, 2005, p.238) that being able to create, omit and accentuate memories of the past offers opportunity to present an ‘imagined construction’ of the past. As Paul Ashton (1991, p. 5) observes, as with any form of historical evidence recording the past, ‘oral testimony must be interpreted and set in a broader historical context’.
Yet the importance and value of oral history testimony in this study is that it allows the participants to articulate, in their own voices, the ways in which they understood their own experiences as war brides. As young women in their teens and early twenties, they experienced a transition period of ‘growing up’ during the war years; at the same time this was an extraordinary period made unique by the exigencies of wartime, when events were more likely to have a lasting impact and thus be remembered with some clarity and detail. The consistency of responses from this cohort of women is very persuasive and gives a firm measure of credence to their stories.
The mythology of war itself defines clearly gendered divisions within society (Lake, 1995, p.67), where traditional masculine hostility on the battlefield contrasts with the more passive role of feminine domesticity on the home front. In reality, during WWII Australian women were very active in a variety of work, both paid and unpaid, which has been well documented by historians (Darian-Smith, 1996, pp.63-64; Buttsworth, S., 1996, p. 56; Lake 1995, p. 62; Oppenheimer, M., 2002, p.?; Lewis, R., 1984, p. 95-6; Gregory, J., 1996, p. 57; Saunders, K., 1997, p.?).
Also, contrary to popular perceptions at the time and ideas of ‘living for the day’ and ‘seizing pleasure’ (Lake, 1995, p.67) the experiences of the women interviewed in this study suggest that the demands and pressures of wartime, and the difficulties of organising marriage to an American serviceman, created conditions where courtship was protracted and often conducted at a distance that prohibited sexual contact.
Although wartime stereotypes portrayed Australian girls who fraternised with American servicemen as ‘good time girls’, and while there were frequent reports of adolescent girls having sex with soldiers (Darian-Smith, 1995, p.121), young women were on the other hand urged to take their ‘full share in the war effort by either enlisting in the defence forces, undertaking work on the land or in industry, or enrolling as a voluntary worker, and by subscribing to war loans’ (Lake & Holmes, 1995, p.94). Clearly, they were expected as part of their unpaid work and patriotic duty to welcome the troops at dances run by both the Australian and American Red Cross and other organisations, and also to volunteer at clubs and canteens.
Australian girls enjoyed social activities and dancing was a popular past time. There was a never-ending supply of young American men with whom they could dance and have fun, however, in order to prevent liaisons and hasty marriages between Australian girls and the Americans, regulations prevented the girls leaving the club with any servicemen (J. Fargo, Interview, September 30, 1999). Despite these precautions, with an influx of more than a million Americans during the war years, many liaisons were formed.
It was at the Dugout Club, in Melbourne, that Jean Fargo1 met her husband. Jean and her sister were volunteers at the Club where there was dancing after eight o’clock at night (Potts, 1986, p. 99). Jean recalls:
once a week we’d have to go and do our thing …clean up the tables, wash dishes or sometimes…dance, or just stand and sing around the piano and be friendly. (J. Fargo, Interview, September 30, 1999).
One afternoon Jean and her sister stayed for the evening dance:
someone was playing the piano…I was standing there in the chorus line and all of a sudden I felt this finger down my back…there was this navy guy…he said ‘When the music starts will you dance with me?’ So I did, and I danced with him quite a bit that evening (J. Fargo, Interview, September 30, 1999).
Jean declined his offer to take her home, but upon his insistence to see her again, she invited him to the home of a couple aged in their sixties, whose sons were fighting overseas, and who had opened up their home to the servicemen. The older couple ‘just loved him’ and they met there every Sunday. Jean didn’t dare to tell her mother as ‘she would not have approved’ (J. Fargo, Interview, September 30, 1999) of her going out with an American. It was a year and a half later that they married, and it was by no means a fast and short-lived infatuation. Although there were opportunities for personal freedom offered by wartime conditions, ‘self-chaperoning’ such as this was not unusual and indicates a sense of caution and control.
Couples met at dances, clubs, cafes, on blind dates, through friends and relatives, at skating rinks, on public transport and simply in the street. Many of these meetings eventually led to marriage.
Surveys of the early 1950s show that, while they were experienced in kissing and ‘petting’, most young unmarried women had not had sexual intercourse (Lake, 1995, p. 74). Sexual education was virtually non-existent in the 1940s, and most girls knew very little about sexual activity or its consequences. One war bride comments:
We were very moral, very Catholic, very young and innocent. At 16 you thought you could become pregnant from kissing! That’s what we thought in the 40s! (N. Lankard, Interview, November 13, 2004).
In spite of their ignorance, however, the women interviewed indicated a caution around sexual activity, due to the fear of pregnancy, even if initially they were unsure what caused it.
Nancy Lankard, one of seven daughters of a very strict father, loved dancing at the Trocadero and other Sydney nightclubs and had dates with a lot of ‘Navy men – Aussies, Brits, and French’. She and a group of friends all went out with Americans ‘who were all very well mannered’. She recalls
we just kissed and that was all…we were all very innocent and we all came home together from the night-clubs… there were the big bands and I loved dancing. We had really good times – but never did anything bad. (N. Lankard, Interview, November 13, 2004).
Nancy met her future husband in July 1942 and she admits (N. Lankard, Interview, November 13, 2004) that she wasn’t ‘too thrilled’ about him at first, as she had plenty of boyfriends. However, getting to know him through his letters over the next nineteen months, she thought that he was ‘a good person, dependable and reliable’. When he returned two years later in February 1944 on a 30-day leave, they married.
Nancy’s future husband was more certain than she was that they would be married. He had asked his aunt in America to send both engagement and wedding rings to Australia in readiness for the wedding day. Surprised when the rings arrived, Nancy thought to herself, ‘Oh, I must be getting married!’ She readily admits that had it not been for the wartime atmosphere, she probably would not have married so quickly and would most likely have married an Australian boyfriend she had been going out with since she was 15 (N. Lankard, Interview, November 13, 2004). In this time of social upheaval, when each day was uncertain, the American boyfriends of the Australian women in this study seemed determined to marry. There appeared to be a sense of urgency to get married, perhaps to fulfil a promise of some stability and optimism for the future, rather than simply rushing in to a sexual relationship.
When Dorothy Thompson met Leroy at the Trocadero in Brisbane, initially she was not keen to go out with him. Although attracted by his ‘good dancing and politeness’ she claims she wasn’t interested in Americans, stating emphatically: ‘I didn’t want to get married until I was 25…and least of all marry an American’ (D. Thompson, Interview, September 19, 2001). Reluctant to accept the notion of romantic love displayed by her American suitor, Dorothy continued to go out with other men and at first refused to wear his engagement ring, and seemed almost willing to be deterred by obstacles surrounding their wedding arrangements. It was much later that Leroy told her that he had made up his mind to marry her the first time they met. In resisting what seemed like the inevitability of fate, Dorothy perhaps had already realised her reluctance to leave Australia: possibly due to fear of the unknown. Perhaps Dorothy’s rebellion against accepting Leroy’s serious advances, was a natural response, and in fact the ‘very stuff of romance’. As Katie Holmes (1995, p.13) claims in her study of women’s diaries, ‘to set or reject the terms set by men’ was a prerogative which women could claim, and to utilize this right was one way in which they had some say and could exert control over a situation.
These examples clearly evidence that rather than being ‘good-time girls’ who ‘threw’ themselves at Americans, these particular women initially resisted such liaisons and were actively pursued by their husbands-to-be, some of whom confidently decided on first meeting, that this was the girl he would marry.
It can be argued that the reinforcement of contemporary gendered stereotypes, which saw the powerful military male as hero and saviour and the passive young female waiting to be wooed, created an atmosphere of heightened romance rather than one of physical pleasure. Sometimes, finding their Australian dates reluctant to go out again, the Americans refused to take ‘no’ for an answer and pursued their romantic targets, wooing them with flowers and gifts. (Campbell, 1989, p. 68). The very persistence displayed in their romantic quests sometimes paid off and they won the hearts of their Australian girlfriends.
Contrary to contemporary stereotypes and more recent research, my interviews with war brides show that not all Australian girls were simply in pursuit of sexual pleasure, nor were all relationships based on brief encounters. Certainly, among this group of women, there were some ‘whirlwind’ romances, and some babies were conceived before marriage, but while wedding ceremonies were often arranged at short notice, most marriages were the result of months, and sometimes years of getting to know each other and developing friendships, often through letter-writing.2 Communication in this written form, during periods of physical separation for weeks and months, clearly heightened the romantic nature of these liaisons and allowed the couples to express their feelings in an appropriate and socially acceptable form.3
Peggy Dunbar Blackman, who grew up in Sydney, had only two dates with her husband-to-be before he was shipped out. She found letters an excellent means of communication, both proving to be good letter-writers and discovering that they had many common interests. Peggy recalls: ‘We liked the same kind of books, and music and theatre and all of those kinds of things.’ (P. Dunbar, Interview, September 29, 2001).
Dorothy Hammond’s future husband was shipped out one week after they had met. Dorothy announced that she was going to marry this American and her father said ‘I’ll give it three months and you’ll forget all about it.’ However, through letter-writing Dorothy got to know her future husband, and she tells how ‘we just kept writing each other letters and getting in deeper’. (D. Hammond, Interview, September 19, 2001).
The flow of letters over extended periods created heightened expectations, as well as offering opportunities for freedom of expression. Many romances developed and many courtships were conducted through letter-writing, even though censorship regulations applied at that time.
Despite soaring marriage rates for all ages in Australia after the outbreak of the Second World War (McDonald, 1975, p.203; Grimshaw, 1994, p.265), getting married in wartime was not easy, and to marry an American was particularly complicated, requiring a deep sense of commitment. Australian girls faced opposition from both Australian and American authorities who actively discouraged these marriages. Australians generally thought that girls should wait to marry Australian men who were away defending their own country. Also, when invasion seemed less imminent, Australian perceptions changed, and the initial popularity of the Americans waned as they were seen as ‘overpaid, oversexed and over here’. (Lake, 1995, p. 66). American authorities officially classed Australian brides as ‘aliens’ who had to comply with legal requirements and apply for permission to enter the United States as immigrants regardless of their husband’s status. (Potts & Potts, 1985, p. 332).
An official letter from U.S. Army Headquarters, in August 1942, directed that all registered Celebrants in New South Wales be informed of ‘the harm done to the individuals, the armed forces, and the war effort by the continuation of the practice of marrying members of the United States Army Forces’.4 Celebrants were requested ‘not to perform such marriages’ without written authority from the prospective husband’s Commanding Officer’, at whose sole discretion permission was either granted or not. 5 In Brisbane, Archbishop Duhig spoke out against American-Australian weddings, fearing bigamous unions, and urged a complete ban until the Americans could prove their legal freedom to marry, and refused to allow such marriages in Brisbane Catholic churches. (Campbell, 1989, pp. 64-5).
In Townsville, Gladys Borger had taken Catholic instruction as her future husband was a Catholic, but when he returned from New Guinea the priest wanted to sight his baptism papers which were impossible to get from the United States at that time. Gladys recalls: ‘so the priest wouldn’t marry us, and we got a Methodist Minister’ to perform the ceremony instead. (G. Borger, Interview, September 29). Such opposition certainly strengthened their resolve to be married, thus demonstrating a continuation of traditional values midst the upheaval of an unpredictable wartime period.
Official policy of the United States Army Forces discouraged marriages of American soldiers in Australia during the progress of the war, announcing that ‘Australian girls who marry American soldiers at this time do so at their own risk’, and that ‘marriage does not confer American citizenship’. (Street, 1966, p. 228).6 Meanwhile many Australian girls and their American fiancées were at the mercy of officialdom to make their future plans. It often took months for the paperwork to be completed, and after permission was granted, to prevent hasty and ill-planned marriages, a mandatory waiting period of six months was introduced before the wedding could take place. The U.S. Secretary of War issued a directive that personnel who married without authority would be subject to severe disciplinary action.7
Barbara Gleason remembers (B. Gleason, Interview, September 20, 2001) the six months waiting period and having to be investigated. She had a thick ‘stack of papers’ including her parents’ permission, so many character references, and a police background check. She relates how her husband’s Commanding Officer would not give his permission for them to marry: ‘[He] told Jim he would never let him get married to an Australian…there wasn’t anything we could do about it.’
For Dorothy Berry, from Crookwell, New South Wales, and her American boyfriend it was a ‘whirlwind’ romance. She recalls (D. Berry, Interview, September 6, 2001) ‘we got together immediately and set up house, but the navy wouldn’t let us get married!’ After six months’ wait, the Captain still refused permission, so they decided they would ‘fool the whole world’ and have a baby to expedite matters. Dorothy tells how this made no difference, and she was four months pregnant when they finally married in August 1943.
Families of girls about to marry American soldiers, were visited by American Red Cross officials and asked to sign a form approving their daughter’s prospective marriage, guaranteeing that they would fully support their daughter, without calling on charities or the U.S. Army for assistance during his absence, in the event of his death, or in the event he is ordered to the United States’. The prospective wife had to certify that she was single, had never been married, that she was self-supporting and would not seek assistance from charities or the U.S. Army. As well, the girl and her parents had to sign an acceptance of the understanding that the U.S. Government made ‘no promise or guarantee whatsoever’ to transport the prospective wife, nor any subsequent dependants, to the United States, either during or after the war (Street, p. 231-232). This did little to calm any of the young women’s anxieties.
Wartime wedding ceremonies were very different to those in peacetime, and for most war brides the introduction of laws, regulations and endless red tape resulted in the importance of the traditional white wedding gown, with its symbolic qualities of purity and virginity giving way to expedience, economy, and availability.
In 1942 the government’s austerity policy intensified wartime shortages, and saw the rationing of luxury goods and the issue of coupons (McKernan, M., 1995, p. 148), making it difficult for war brides to make wedding preparations. In place of the traditional white wedding with ‘all the trimmings’, borrowed clothes, small gatherings, and ceremonies conducted in haste were the order of the day.
Edna Pickerell (known as Teddy), born in Boonah, Queensland, describes (E. Pickerell, Interview, September 11, 2001) the atmosphere of the time, when her American boyfriend proposed three months after they met: ‘Things at that time seemed to be more urgent – you didn’t have time to wait and think clearly.’ Teddy recalls (2001) ‘there was a lot of red tape’ and she found the pre-wedding arrangements quite rigorous. As she had enlisted in the Air Force she needed permission to marry from her commanding officer; permission from her parents as she was not twenty-one; permission from her fiancé’s commanding officer, who also interviewed Teddy; and finally, they went to see the minister to be married. It took a matter of months to organise all this paper work, without which he would not marry them.
Wedding arrangements often had to be made with little notice. Cynthia Peters grew up in Sydney and had been engaged to an American serviceman for a year when he returned from action in the Philippines. Calling from Brisbane, he said: ‘I’m coming down so we can be married!’ Cynthia had three days notice and she remembers (C. Peters, Interview, September 29, 2001) the urgency of the time: ‘Of course you didn’t send out invitations in those days. You got on the phone and said “Can you come to a wedding – next Tuesday?”’
Commodities such as petrol were in short supply and honeymoons away were rare. Mary Bourne married her American husband in Albany, Western Australia in February 1943, and remembers (M. Bourne, Interview, September 29, 2001) how her honeymoon trip was disrupted by petrol shortages and how ‘the taxi driver had to stop in the middle of the road…to put charcoal in the burner.’
Marilyn Lake (1995, p .62) has argued that after the war, rather than returning to the old, traditional ‘roles’, women were ‘invited to step into an alluring, exciting future’, based on consumption and sexuality. Certainly, the emerging consumer culture which presented a new glamorous image of femininity gave women the opportunity, but not all women were able to take advantage of this invitation.
In the case of the Australian war brides in this study, their new-found freedom and independence was restricted by wartime regulations and red tape. In transplanting their lives in Australia to the United States of America, rather than stepping into ‘an alluring and exciting future’, they largely maintained the traditional roles of wife, mother and homemaker.
After crowded and mostly uncomfortable sea voyages to America, some women had to adapt to unfamiliar and sometimes isolated or hostile environments where they were expected to step into a traditional domestic role. Most of these women were challenged by an array of difficulties: uncertainties, delays, isolation, subsequent homesickness and financial constraint.
In drawing on the oral testimony of Australian WWII war brides to highlight the reality of their experiences, it can be clearly seen how they differed from popular images of the ‘GI Bride’, based on contemporary wartime myths and stereotypes. The power of these perceptions can be seen in the continuation of the stereotypical image of the war bride which persisted long after the war was over.
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