Author’s Note: People often ask me how I developed such a passion for British History. Well, it all started with two teenagers, two books of matches and a pipe. Happy Mother’s day to all who celebrate!
Along with the vast majority of teenagers living in World War II war-torn Great Britain, like Her Royal Highness Princess Elizabeth of York, Roma Toman had a strength of purpose. In a generation where “all gave some, and some gave all”, as everyone else did around her, this young woman rolled up her sleeves to do the work that needed to be done to win the war so crucial to preserve a nation, to preserve an empire, to preserve a way of life going back a millennium.
Roma Toman’s contribution to the war effort saw her working for the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes, commonly known as the NAAFI. Created by the British government in 1921, the NAAFI ran recreational establishments for the British Armed Forces, as well as selling goods to British servicemen. During World War II, over 96,000 personnel operated over 7,000 canteens, providing critical support to the British military. To soften the load and support the British servicemen, primarily Navy enlisted men based in her home of Milford Haven, Wales, Roma Toman sold supplies needed for the local British Navy Base and ships moored in the harbor. As the war progressed, Americans, Australians, Free French and Canadians joined the ranks stationed in Milford Haven, most predominantly “the Yanks from across the pond”. The NAAFI stepped things up a notch further and served the entire Allied Forces as richly as their own men– well almost.
Roma Toman Condon later recalled, “I wasn’t supposed to, but I made sure our British boys always received their fair share, so I tucked things away to save for them. The Americans brought a lot with them, but our boys only had what the NAAFI could provide.”
“I like a man who smokes a pipe.”
– Roma Toman –
Everett Condon, an American hailing from Fairhaven, Massachusetts, made a life-changing decision after the Attack on Pearl Harbor. He left high school before graduating and enlisted into the United States Navy. Far more fortunate than most serving during World War II, he saw very little action, instead assigned to be a Storekeeper, Third Class at an American military hospital in Hakin, Pembrokeshire, Wales. In this role, Mr. Condon insured the soldiers and sailors in need of urgent medical care, as well as their caretakers, were adequately provisioned by picking up and then inventorying and storing supplies ordered by Naval Officers on the base. Replacing a Storekeeper imprisoned for selling provisions on the black market, Mr. Condon was meticulous in his duties.
Mrs. Condon explained, “Yes, because of rationing, there really was a black market in Milford. Besides this man, there was a local lad we called ‘the rat’. My father always wondered what was in the satchels he always carried around. We were happy to eventually be rid of him.”
The U.S. Navy found the easiest way to secure supplies needed for the military hospital was from the efficient services afforded by the NAAFI, located nearby at the Milford Haven docks. On one visit to simply secure two boxes of matches to light his own cigarettes, Mr. Condon met a Welsh teenager, who smugly informed him that she preferred a man who smoked a pipe. By the time they met again at a local dance, Mr. Condon had changed his smoking habits, and so began their shared life journey and 60 years of marriage together.
“I knew he took a shining to me, but my mam told me to watch out for the foreign boys, especially the Americans. My parents were not happy at first, but it’s hard not to like Everett. He charmed them, and my nain, too.”
“We dated nine months, and when it was announced the American hospital would close, Everett was told that if he wanted to marry me, he’d need to do it within the week. I wore my best friend Barbara’s wedding dress, and my mam bought me my veil in Cardiff.”
“My parents told Everett he could invite his friends. He bloody put a note on the message board on the base, and every American boy in Milford and all our boys showed up. It turned into a block party. Fortunately, they brought food with them. We had spam, canned green beans, and fruit cocktail. The base cook made us a frosted gingerbread cake. It was quite a fun time, and I danced all night. Every American wanted a dance with the bride. Then not to be undone, the British boys followed suit.”
At age 19, Roma Toman Condon became one of a diaspora of approximately 100,000 British women, many accompanying over 11,000 infants and children, to leave the United Kingdom after marrying Allied Servicemen during World War II. Most were bound for Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and like Mrs. Condon, the United States of America.
Mrs. Condon was one of over 2,300 British women, along with their infants and children, aboard the former luxury liner Queen Mary on its maiden voyage of War Brides transported from Southampton, England to New York City. As a “beneficiary” of the War Brides Act of 1944, a law that enabled “foreign non-Asian” spouses and children of American military personnel to enter the United States, Mrs. Condon became one of over 105,000 women from around the world to join their American husbands after the conclusion of hostilities.
Although Roma Toman Condon traveled at the expense of the American government in deference to her husband’s military service, her journey was far from extravagant. Leaving her home, her family, her friends, her support network, and all that normally grounds a teenager, Mrs. Condon ventured alone from Milford Haven, Wales to London. In London, she reported to an American route transportation officer, who shipped her off by train to Tidworth Army Base in Hampshire, where British War Brides venturing to the United States were “processed”.
War Brides at Tidworth Army Base were warehoused in military-style bunkers, with little privacy afforded. Offered “lectures on life in the United States” and “travel instructions”, War Brides were fingerprinted, immunized and compelled to undergo intrusive medical examinations. “It was embarrassing. I have no idea what the Americans thought we were walking around with.” The War Brides’ British pounds were converted to American currency. Once the flurry of initial activities was complete, boredom set in, with the mud, crying babies and uncomfortable accommodations weighing the women down and emotionally exhausting them.
As Mrs. Condon vividly recalled, the youngest War Bride at Tidworth was only two years younger than she was, the oldest 65 years old. Her saddest recollection of her stay is of a young woman who after being processed for travel was served divorce papers that her husband filed in the United States. “We all cried learning that,” she said softly. “It still upsets me to think of it.”
On February 1, 1946, the 2,300 War Brides, infants and children warehoused at Tidworth Army Base finally made their way to Southampton, England, their last stop on their British home soil. Unfortunately, the comfortable tour buses filled quickly, so Mrs. Condon and five other young women were compelled to ride on a military truck with hard and shaky wooden benches. At nearly age 88, Roma Toman Condon recalled the experience as if it were yesterday. “It was a wild Army drive that hit every bump.” Still, as uncomfortable and downright scary as the two-hour ride to Southampton was, later the same day, Mrs. Condon boarded the Queen Mary. After two long days waiting on the ship for strong winter gales to pass, her voyage to a new life with her American husband was finally underway.
Like most of the women and children on board the Queen Mary, Roma Toman Condon had never traveled by ship. With winter squalls bordering on gales rocking the ship endlessly, seasickness was rampant. “Oh yes, I was one of the patients,” Mrs. Condon recalled with no fondness. Although sick the first two days of the voyage, Mrs. Condon remembered the mid-journey to be relatively enjoyable. “We had movies aboard the ship and other entertainment.” Unfortunately, the last two days journeying on the Queen Mary mirrored the first two. Heavy land swells caused the ship to roll considerably, and Mrs. Condon was heavily seasick yet again. In short, the trip “across the pond” was downright miserable for the teenager.
Finally, on February 9, 1946, the Queen Mary arrived with her precious cargo in New York City. Eager to debark, all British women and children were confined to their staterooms until a thorough inspection of the liner was completed, a process that took over seven hours. Finally, groups organized alphabetically were taken by bus to the New York City Military Armory. Mrs. Condon shared, “It looked like a cattle inspection when we entered the Armory. I was afraid I would miss my husband, and I would be lost there.” The husbands were brought to a balcony area to await sight of their wives, and the women were “checked off” one by one. The women, some with infants and small children in tow, were then seated in a bleacher area.
Everett Condon waited anxiously in the balcony area for several hours watching the women and children pass by him. He remained attentive in fear he might miss Mrs. Condon in the organized confusion. Finally, following the alphabetical system used, he knew his wife would arrive soon, so he bounded downstairs, looking for her. In spite of all of Mr. Condon’s best efforts, it was his wife who sighted him first, and they hurriedly reunited.
In an interview the next day with a newspaper reporter from the New Bedford Standard-Times, Everett Condon was asked what his wife said to him upon their initial reunion. Mr. Condon replied simply, “She didn’t say a word. She just kissed me.”
Video Credit: Hayley Westenra International (YouTube)
The Oral History of my beloved mother, Roma Toman Condon
The American War Bride Experience, Foreign Born GI Brides of World War II
The New Bedford Standard-Times, First War Bride in Area Makes Tour Hunting Clothes, Has Silk Hose Supply, February 10, 1946.