Thursday, June 5, 2008

The following article appeared in The Pomfret Times in Connecticut (June 2008) headlined ‘Rectory School hosted British children during World War II’.

Michael Henderson returns after 60 years to speak to Rectory School students.

It is little known nowadays that during World War II American families hosted several thousand British children threatened by bombing and invasion. It was a generosity that is remembered today with great gratitude by those who spent anything from two to six years in this country.

My brother Gerald, then aged six, and I aged 8, were two of them. I have written a book, See You After the Duration, that conveys a sense of the adventure and heartache of those wartime years. The book expresses to Americans our continuing sense of gratitude to those families and will, I hope, introduce to British readers the generous heart of America which we encountered at that young age.

There is a strong Pomfret connection in the book and I devote a whole chapter to it. First of all the American family that took us in were the Walter Hinchmans of Milton, Massachusetts. In May their grandson, Walter, was our host in Pomfret where he taught for many years at Pomfret School.

The second connection is that I was at Rectory School in 1944 and 1945. I was glad to be able to speak to the whole school recently about our wartime experiences. In 1939 at the start of the war there had been planning in Britain for the evacuation of a million and a half children from cities to the countryside to get them away from the dangers of bombing. No thought at all had been given to overseas evacuation. But by May 1940 a German invasion was expected and offers came in from the Commonwealth countries and from the United States to take British children. In fact, a Gallup poll at that time indicated that five million American families would be ready to host British children. One family who made the offer was the Hinchmans.

The Rectory headmaster, John Bigelow, or Mr. John, as we came to know him, had shared in the decision by the Association of Junior Boarding School Heads, to offer scholarships to English youngsters. I was glad that at the time of the school’s 75th anniversary I was able on behalf of my brother and me and half a dozen English boys who benefited to thank him publicly for this act.

On my visit last month I was given the opportunity to speak to the whole school and convey to them some of our experiences during World War II. They seemed very interested though, as I pointed out, my speaking to them about World War II would be as if when I was at Rectory some alumnus had come to talk about the Spanish-American War. I told them that during the war the school thoughtfully had even hung a Union Jack in the assembly hall so that we could turn and face it when the American boys made their Pledge of Allegiance to the Stars and Stripes. When I mentioned to the students that I could still remember many of the sings I learned around the fire at camp in New Hampshire one of them called out ‘sing’ and I was on the spot. I responded by singing the parody of the Notre Dame song and I nearly got a standing ovation!

By the time we came to Rectory in 1943 life in the school was reflecting the difficulties of rationing, staff shortage and above all the fact that some 200 alumni were in the services and were spread around the world with some killed or wounded or decorated. The war was brought home to us dramatically by the death of the father of one of the boys. Commenting on the sad news of reported deaths Mr, John wrote in The Rectory News: ‘The price of winning the war is tremendous. May we find means to make the peace which will follow it universal and lasting. That is the least we shall owe to our dead.’

At Rectory during the war years in the United States were laid many of the foundations of my life, not least a great love for this country and its people and a desire to work for closer understanding. Perhaps the commitment of our lives, both Gerald and mine, to peacemaking and my books on the subject of creating that universal and lasting peace, like ‘Forgiveness: Breaking the Chain of Hate’, are an unconscious response to Mr. John’s challenge.

While with the Hinchmans I visited Pomfret School and was able to tell some of the students how I specifically got involved in efforts to create understanding in the world. I described how returning to England after five years of separation there was need to re-establish a sense of family. Our parents’ admonitions had often been met with ‘We don’t do it that way in America’ and pretty soon America became known as ‘we-land’ in our family. So as a family we visited a new center of reconciliation which had been set up by Swiss in Caux to help bring together those who had fought against each other. There we found more than a new family unity; my mother found through apology an answer as an Irish Protestant to division with Irish Catholics, my father a new relationship with Africans with whom he did business and my brother and I a sense of calling to work for a better world with the group who had set up the center. They were known as Moral Re-Armament or MRA because its initiator, Frank Buchman, said in 1938 that along with the emphasis on military rearmament we needed moral and spiritual rearmament, to deal with the element in people’s hearts that led to war. Now it is called Initiatives of Change and continues through Caux its work to bring nations together.

My next contribution to that work is a book which comes out in January. It is ‘No Enemy to Conquer – Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World’ (Baylor University Press) and has a foreword by the Dalai Lama. Some social scientists say that the whole evacuation was a wrong step to take. Certainly there were some children who did not have as happy an experience as we did and suffered from the family dislocation. But for my brother and me and our friends we rate those years as an experience for which we have always been grateful. It introduced us to generations of Americans we would not have known and became, as the final report of the committee that sent us wrote, ‘an applied lesson in international understanding’. Indeed it was. So once again a big thank you to Pomfret, to the Hinchman family and to Rectory School.