When 1.5 million American troops started arriving on British shores in 1942, they captivated war-weary British girls – then left a trail of broken hearts and unplanned pregnancies. Kate Thompson honors those women who survived those turbulent days

Getting the party started – American troops and their friends celebrate VE Day in Piccadilly Circus, central London, 8 May 1945

Getting the party started – American troops and their friends celebrate VE Day in Piccadilly Circus, central London, 8 May 1945

 It’s a steamy summer night in wartime Soho. There is a low, heavy rumble that then turns into a trembling ground. The theatregoers are nervously looking around, but it is not a bombing raid. The ‘steeplechase race’ to get the coveted front-row seats of the Windmill Theatre has begun.

‘Shake it, sister!’ whoops a particularly enthusiastic GI as he vaults the red-velvet seat and takes the lead. Soon, the entire front row of young men are stomping cigar-chomping, loud young men eager to touch the gorgeous young women. This behavior has been witnessed by Londoners in a restrained manner. It is something Britain has not seen before.

In the spring of 1942, the Yanks, as they were known, didn’t just leapfrog over theatre seats – an entire generation of young American men crossed an ocean to arrive on our war-torn shores.

 Eighty years ago this week – on 7 December 1941 – the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, a US Navy base in Hawaii, which prompted the United States to enter the Second World War and join the Allies in the fight against the Axis powers of Japan, Germany and Italy. In the two years that followed, a large number of US soldiers and aircrew arrived in Britain ready to invade Nazi-occupied Europe. These GIs (which stands for Government Issue) made up what is now known as the ‘friendly invasion’.

By May 1944 – in preparation for the Allied D-Day invasion of Normandy, which would take place the following month – there were over 1.5 million American GIs crammed on to our scruffy, threadbare island. These GIs were both better-dressed than British Tommies and received better wages. A private in the British Army was paid 14 shillings a week, whereas a private in the US Army received £3 and 8 shillings. Their smartly tailored uniforms, which made it difficult to tell a private from an officer, stood in stark contrast to the British troops’ plain serge battledress.

With their chewing gum, louche demeanour, exotic accents and Lucky Strike smokes, they weren’t just a welcome sight, they were virtually a different species. For beleaguered British ladies, they provided a glamourous and colorful escape from war-scarred Britain. The GIs soon began to shimmy down high streets and wowed British women with their daring dance moves, including the jitterbug. Many girls who had never seen Americans before were amazed that they looked like Hollywood stars.

On arrival, the US War Department issued its GIs with a 48-page handbook entitled Instructions for American Servicemen, which told them: ‘The British have been bombed night after night… remember that crossing the ocean doesn’t automatically make you a hero. There are housewives in aprons and youngsters in knee pants who have lived through more high explosives in air raids than many soldiers saw in the last war…’

As a historical novelist, I have interviewed hundreds of wartime women and there is one word always guaranteed to raise a wry smile – Yank! ‘They were so charming to us,’ Doris Seacoll, from Poplar, East London, told me when I spoke to her several years ago. ‘When I was 17, I’d doll myself up and head to the Lyceum to dance my cares away with the Americans. They showed me all the steps and we’d dance to big-band music. I was never short of a partner, but you had to watch them,’ the 95-year-old laughed. ‘I never fell for their lines. My dad would have killed me.’

Just married – Joy Beaver Beebe and her GI Carl, 1945.

Just married – Joy Beaver Beebe and her GI Carl, 1945.

Cathy Caley of Bethnal Green East London said it even more clearly in a past interview. ‘Heard the one about the new utility knickers? One Yank and they’re off,’ quipped the 88-year-old. ‘There’s a bar called Dirty Dicks opposite Liverpool Street Station where they all drank and a lot of women used to go “soldiering”, as it was called. With military precision, they targeted the Yanks to extract as much from them as possible: nylons, cigarettes, and perfume. My age was not right for me to travel, however the other older women gossiped in factories about the incident the following morning. A married woman was once conceived by a GI. She couldn’t be sure who the father was so she used her husband’s name as her baby son’s first name and used the GI’s as his middle name.’

Three miles west of Dirty Dicks in a more salubrious part of town, London’s Piccadilly was transformed into Little America and it was where every homesick GI headed on his furlough (leave time). The key to the American Red Cross Club (also known as Rainbow Corner) was given away on November 2, 1942. This symbolic gesture showed that the club would be open 24/7, even though the US soldiers were in Europe fighting. There were weekly dances and a dining room that could accommodate up to 2000 people. The tempting smell of doughnuts and hamburgers drifted out on to the street and a jukebox pumped out Glenn Miller’s wartime favourite ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’.

 With their chewing gum and exotic accents the GIs were virtually a different species

Unlike at Dirty Dicks, there was an air of respectability at Rainbow Corner – and not every girl could gain entry. Phyllis Broadbent wasn’t one of those lucky girls, but once inside she found herself more impressed by the refreshments than by the men. ‘We tried a new drink called Coca-Cola. To our sugar-starved palates, it was delicious.’

Like Doris, Phyllis, then in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), was always careful around the Americans. In those straitened times, pregnancy out of wedlock wasn’t just scandalous, it had devastating consequences. It took enormous courage to survive as an unmarried mother, and a ‘bastard’ child was treated like a second-class citizen. However, many American women did get pregnant. In wartime, the mentality of ‘live for today, for tomorrow we might die’ acted as a potent aphrodisiac, especially when faced with the easy charm of a well-dressed GI.

The US Army’s Provost Marshal issued a booklet entitled How to Stay Away from Trouble in April 1943. It appears that not everyone read it. When they began to be called back to action in preparation for D-day, GIs didn’t just leave behind a trail of broken hearts, but thousands of illegitimate babies. It is not possible to give exact figures, and the estimates can vary widely between approximately 7,000 and a staggering 100,000. Many women had to choose secret adoption because abortion was dangerous and illegal.

Not all children born to illegitimate parents were abandoned. When RAF engineer Les Chipperfield from Diss in Norfolk was demobbed in 1945, he found his young wife Annie (who he hadn’t seen in five years because he had served in North Africa) cradling a one-year-old baby boy called Gordon. Annie, 21, and Les were married only one day after the declaration of war in 1939. She had, he discovered, attended a dance at a US Army base in Suffolk in his absence where she’d found comfort in the arms of GI Harold Blessett from Mississippi. Annie discovered that she was pregnant shortly after their romantic liaison. However, Annie refused to surrender the baby for adoption.

Let’s dance! British girls getting into the groove with GIs in London on VE Day

Let’s dance! British women dance with GIs at London’s VE Day

It was an amazing act of compassion that Les did not just forgive her for the wrongs she had done, but also raised Gordon his son. ‘It was only after my mother died that Les confessed, “I’m not your real father. Your mother had a one-night stand with a GI.” I was flabbergasted,’ admits 77-year-old retired coach repairer Gordon Chipperfield from Watton in Norfolk. ‘Suddenly it made sense why Mum never wanted to talk about the war.’

Gordon waited to find his GI father until Les passed away in 1986. He had his DNA tested in 2016 to confirm who his father really was. Although Harold died in 1976, Gordon found out that he had two half-sisters. He visited them in Mississippi in 2017 ‘I was treated like royalty by my new family,’ says Gordon. ‘Apparently, my GI father never forgot me, his English war babe.’

 My dad revealed to me, after my mum had died, that my true father was an American GI. 

There were many romantic relationships that ended in skeletons. 70,000 British ladies became GI brides. ‘The US Army wasn’t particularly keen on its servicemen being distracted from their real purpose – preparing for D-day – and did its best to discourage such marriages,’ explains Duncan Barrett, co-author of GI Brides: The Wartime Girls Who Crossed the Atlantic for Love. ‘GIs had to obtain permission from their commanding officer or face a court martial, and couples were subject to interviews and background checks. The lucky ones made it to the altar before D-day; the others waited anxiously for their men to come over on leave, and arranged hurried nuptials,’ Barrett says. ‘But even once the war was over, the waiting wasn’t. The US Army’s priority was getting its men home, not reuniting them with their brides.’

The ‘wallflower wives’, as they were termed by the press, grew restless, and on 11 October 1945 hundreds marched on the US embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square demanding ships to America. Finally, in December that year, Congress passed the War Brides Act, giving GI brides non-quota immigration status (in other words, exempting them from the quotas that were in force for other immigrants to the US), and transportation at the Army’s expense. Operation War Bride received a fleet ship. ‘British women waved goodbye to family and friends knowing it could be years before they saw them again, if ever,’ explains Barrett.

Joy Beaver Beebe was one of the pioneering brides. Originally from Bexleyheath in Kent, the 96-year old great-great-grandmother now lives in Oregon in the Northwest US. After the death of her father William in 1941, Joy – just 16 years old – was thrust into the role of breadwinner, supporting her mother Renee and two younger brothers. Joy was able to sleep under an air-raid Morrison cage and woke up in the early hours of the morning to take the train to London. There she dodged bombs as she typist. Joy discovered refuge from the terror and hardship in the wartime dancehalls. ‘I used to go to the Embassy Ballroom in Bexley,’ Joy says. ‘It was a popular haunt for the GIs and that drew a lot of girls.’

Joy, then 19, met Carl Beebe, a bespectacled veteran, there in September 1944. ‘He wasn’t full of swagger like the other GIs were,’ she says. ‘He didn’t tell me the streets of New York were paved with gold!’ Carl, who was 24, worked for US Army Intelligence as a codebreaker at Hall Place in Bexley, an offshoot of Bletchley Park.

Phyllis Broadbent, 94, with a photograph of herself in 1944. She says she loved the Yanks – ‘for their Coca-Cola!’

Phyllis Broadbent, 94. A photograph taken in 1944. She says she loved the Yanks – ‘for their Coca-Cola!’

Joy and he were soon to be an item. ‘He was polite and kind. He always brought flowers to me and was thoughtful to my mom. He knew we didn’t have much so brought her treats, like peanut butter, which we’d never tasted before.’

Joy was attracted to her mother and she agreed after three months of being in a relationship with him. On 28 April 1945, Joy and Carl were married in Welling, Kent in a church with a ‘blown-off’ roof. Joy looked stunning in the exquisite silk white dress that her brother had procured on the black market. It snowed throughout the ceremony with rain pouring through the roof. But the sun rose when they went outside. Ten days after they exchanged vows, Victory in Europe was declared, but Carl’s war wasn’t yet over. Before the August victory, Carl was assigned to Germany and given the task of deciphering Japanese codes.

It wasn’t until February 1948 that the young couple was able to set sail for America with their nearly two-year-old son Philip. They settled in Oregon, had four children and enjoyed 51 years of happy marriage before Carl’s death in 1995, aged 75.

Joy currently volunteers for the National War Brides Association. It is an organization that supports war brides in America. She not only keeps alive these heroic women’s stories, but she also honors the 362 561 US military personnel who were killed in action during World War II. Joy and many other families will be able to remember Pearl Harbor eighty years later.

 For more information on tracing family links to US military personnel, visit gitrace.org