Wednesday, January 5, 2011

This article appeared in the Boston Herald on December 26 2010. You can read it online here>>

Fleeing Britain for U.S. during WWII was adventure of a lifetime

Seventy years ago my brother Gerald and I, along with hundreds of other English children, found ourselves celebrating our first American Christmas.

Gerald was 6 and I was 8. Our lives had been turned upside down when we were sent across the Atlantic in a convoy escorted by a battleship and five destroyers.

At Britain’s lowest moment when she expected to be invaded by the Germans, American families had offered sanctuary to British children.

That Christmas our host families did all they could to make up for our separation from our parents. Our hosts were the Walter Hinchmans in Milton. For many like them, that open-hearted invitation to a Britain under attack from German bombs was a five-year commitment - and a demonstration of American hospitality and generosity that has stayed with us a lifetime.

My brother and I were too young to appreciate the danger of the Atlantic crossing. Adventure outweighed homesickness. For parents it was an agonizing wait to learn if their children got through safely. The danger was made clear when a ship was sunk by a torpedo and 77 children died, putting an end to the overseas evacuation of British children. But by then more than 3,000 children had arrived in America.

Those who made it through were soon fully engaged in American life. It was no longer short trousers and blazers and school caps but dungarees or corduroy knickerbockers and ski caps. It was an introduction to the decimal system and coeducation and the Pledge of Allegiance. I loved playing American sports and of course supported the Red Sox and the Bruins. I learned poems about Paul Revere and Barbara Frietchie and I can still recite the names of the presidents up to Grover Cleveland (that was as far as I had gotten when I returned home in 1945).

If the wind was blowing in the right direction, we had the wonderful aroma from the Baker’s Chocolate Factory. There was eating ice cream at Hendries and reading comics at the barber, something we weren’t allowed to do at home. And there was my weekly ration of radio programs broadcast by WHDH and WBZ: Superman and Terry and the Pirates on weekdays, and the Lone Ranger on Saturdays. I still remember “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, brought to you by the makers of Wheaties, breakfast of champions.”

I can hardly say that I formed any impression of the Boston area during that time. My world was bordered by Centre Street, Reedsdale Road and Randolph Avenue in Milton! It was a big trip to buy shoes in Quincy. I do remember the Museum of Fine Arts because, as I recall, there was a great Native American figure in front of it. And I did get to visit MIT because the son of my host family was on the fencing team there. But with gas rationed we didn’t go far, except by train. We used to camp in New Hampshire and visited Nantucket because Mr. Hinchman’s ancestor was Maria Mitchell, the first woman astronomer, who had an observatory there.

After Pearl Harbor we joined young Americans in growing vegetables, collecting scrap metal and saving for war bonds. I was a proud little English boy in the crowd when Prime Minister Churchill spoke at Harvard.

Our hosts the Hinchmans had six children and and we are in touch to this day with their descendants. A granddaughter has stayed with us in England and last year we stayed with a grandson in Connecticut. We even attended the wedding of a great granddaughter in Oregeon.

In Milton, the Unitarian minister, Dr. Vivian T. Pomeroy, also took in an evacuated British child, Richard Price (who went on to become the chairman of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and is one of the producers of the likely Oscar contender “The King’s Speech”). In 1940, Dr. Pomeroy predicted that the English children would not only be preserved from damage and death, but would return home with a great love of America and foster a better understanding of America among the English people.

That has been abundantly true in our case.