Thursday, July 29, 2010


The following article appeared in the Lakeville Journal on July 29 2010

A time to remember
Guest Commentary — Michael Henderson

As an Englishman, it was a joy for me to attend the Fourth of July celebrations at the Town Grove in Lakeville this year. Particularly as the reading of the Declaration of Independence, the “Washington Post March” played by the Salisbury Town Band, the hot dogs and hamburgers and the fireworks carried me back in gratitude to the years of World War II.

I was one of some 3,000 young Brits who were sent for safety to the United States at that time. Many readers may know that more than a million British children were sent to the countryside to get away from German bombing. Not so well known is that thousands of British children were also sent overseas to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and the United States to escape the threat of a German invasion.

The British government even introduced an official program so that overseas evacuation was available for all, not just for the few who could afford it. Within a week, 200,000 children were signed up, 30,000 for the United States. Comparatively few came, due to the fact that a ship, the City of Benares, was sunk by a torpedo. Seventy-seven children were killed and the program was ended.

My brother, who was 6 years old, and I, age 8, along with hundreds of other children, sailed in liners in a convoy escorted by five destroyers and a battleship. We were too young to appreciate the dangers as we sat on our bunks playing Battleships. For parents, of course, they were worrying for days as they did not know if their children would get through safely.

The father of three girls on our ship wrote in his diary: “There are mines strewn across the oceans, submarines lying in wait to torpedo them, aircraft searching for them to blow them to pieces. Yet I cannot but believe that the crime of exposing them at sea is less than the crime of keeping them at home to be the possible victims of an invading army.”

The fact that it was a big adventure, plus the generous way American families cared for us, meant that for most, homesickness was only a transient issue. Schools, too, went out of their way to welcome us. At my Connecticut school, for instance, a Union Jack was hung so that when American children each morning faced the Stars and Stripes and recited the Pledge of Allegiance, we could face our own flag.

The evacuees went to families in all parts of the United States and entered into American life. All of us soon adopted American ways and after Pearl Harbor joined with young Americans in collecting scrap metal, growing vegetables and saving for war bonds. I even heard British Prime Minister Winston Churchill speak at Harvard in 1943. My father came on an army mission to Washington, D.C. He phoned and afterwards I commented, “Gee, he speaks just like the movies!”

I can still sing the college and service songs we learned round the campfire in New Hampshire. I can recite the American presidents – but only up to Cleveland – as that was where I had got to when I returned home to England, this time on an aircraft carrier.

I have been in touch with more than a hundred evacuees for my book on the subject, “See You After the Duration.” One evacuee wrote that it had given her a sense of space and purpose that everything is possible, and another that to experience a second culture so young is to learn early in life that there is more than just the best British way of doing things.

For most, the years in America were happy ones. Even if it meant an upheaval in family life and an educational challenge, our predominant thought continues to be one of gratitude to the American families who opened their homes.

Most of us remain close to those families. The father I quoted earlier wrote to his children’s hosts at the end of the war: “You must realize how very large is the number of people whose hearts you have touched by your generosity and whose faith in the ultimate decency and kindness of human beings you have restored.”

The final report of the American Committee for the Evacuation of Children called the whole experience “an applied lesson in international understanding.” For me, it has all come full circle, with my writing books on reconciliation and our daughter being American and teaching at Hotchkiss.

President Obama recently underlined to Prime Minister David Cameron the continuing significance of the “special relationship” between our two countries. The evacuees who are now in their seventies and eighties have never doubted it.

I am sure that is why I sang Francis Scott Key’s immortal words so enthusiastically at the Town Grove this year.

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