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Across the ocean to a new life

For 10 days I breathed the ocean air as my boat slowly crossed the Atlantic from Southampton, England to New York. 

Ten days is a long crossing, but it was wartime, and we had to dodge German submarines waiting to torpedo us. The boat was full of children being sent from England to escape the bombing.

This was just after the fall of France in 1940, and everyone was sure Hitler’s forces would immediately just step across that narrow little English Channel and invade.

Our island became a fortress: anti-aircraft guns pointed day and night to the sky, the beaches covered in barbed wire and mined, the children being required to take their government-issued gas-masks wherever they went. Everyone was afraid, and Churchill made his famous “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech to help keep our spirits up and show defiance toward our vastly stronger enemy.

The idea of sending children to Canada and the United States was never approved of by Churchill. I have read that he was only persuaded to allow the program to go forward because his public relations team (or whatever they were called then) told him it would make great propaganda — all those brave little girls and boys with their gas masks slung across their shoulders, leaving hearth and home to escape the horrors of war — who could deny them? And surely, it would help to influence American public opinion and bring them round to the idea of joining the Allies in their epic struggle against the German fascists.

My own odyssey happened very quickly that hot August when my mother’s long-time friends in Philadelphia offered to take me for the duration. To my mother worried frantic about the possible fate of her nubile 15-year-old daughter in the event of an invasion, the offer was heaven-sent. When I was told about this stunning possibility, I was almost equally thrilled and terrified. Ostensibly, I could refuse this generous offer, though of course I was heavily pressured to accept. I hated the thought of leaving everyone behind, but all the grownups were saying the war would only last a year, and after all, I’d been away from home at boarding school for the past five years, which would make the separation easier. Or so the reasoning went. For my part, I had always loved America, or the American image depicted in the movies that told me how glamorous and exciting and rich everyone was there. It seemed a much more exciting place to be than stuffy old England. My adventurous side won, and I agreed to go.

But it was one thing to decide on going and quite another to make it happen. There was an incredible amount of red tape to wade through. First, a berth on a boat was procured, then a passport, papers, medical check-ups and such to put in order. And just when it looked clear, a huge stumbling block appeared: Any child traveling alone abroad had to be accompanied by an adult. Who would go with me? It looked pretty hopeless. The boat sailed in three weeks. And then, a miracle, one of those strikingly lucky chances that happen, and lives are changed forever. My mother’s sister, my beloved Aunt Yevonde, who had been in the thick of it all from the start, was in line at the butcher’s shop (food was not yet rationed, but some things were in very short supply) when she overheard two women chatting in front of her. One was saying, yes, she was leaving England in a few weeks taking her two nephews to America. My aunt, who was quite forward in an un-English sort of way, spoke up and joined their conversation, eventually saying that her niece was also to go to America on that very boat but needed a sponsor, “and do you think you could look after her, too? She’s 15 and a very nice child!” And after a bit more discussion the woman, amazingly, agreed to do so. Now there was nothing to hold me back: I was going.

Word came one morning of the hitherto secret date of our sailing. We gathered at Waterloo Station. Families and friends were not permitted to travel to Southampton where we were sailing from, only the evacuees were allowed. This was good-bye. Clumps of people stood around their baggage on the train platform. The atmosphere was subdued but determinedly stiff-upper lip. I didn’t want to cry. But all my bravado had deserted me, and I wanted to fling myself on the ground and hug my mother’s knees, crying, “No, no! You can’t send me away!” But instead we stood and talked about the magazines I had bought to read on the train and the provisions in my backpack and the care of baggage. 

“All Aboard!” This was it. This was the moment. I was only half-conscious, out of my head, as I hugged and hugged my mother, my brother, my aunt, some friends, and then I was on the train looking out at them clustered outside my window. I waved and waved as we pulled slowly out of the station. They dwindled away as we gathered speed, then they disappeared. And then I began to cry.

Chloe Scott is a member of Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.




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