Love letters straight from the heart

It's an odd experience: leafing through your parents' letters, written more than 50 years earlier as their romance burned brightly, spluttered and then bloomed.

Steven Russell

It's an odd experience: leafing through your parents' letters, written more than 50 years earlier as their romance burned brightly, spluttered and then bloomed. Jack Rosenthal finally plucked up the courage to read them . . . and has used the correspondence to tell the story of a pivotal time for rural East Anglia, not to mention his mother and father

IT'S Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour who for an hour or so help the audience forget the war that's been raging for more than four years. If You Please, a whimsical showcase of Dixieland music, is playing at Leiston Picture House on Thursday, March 9, 1944. There to see it is Hilda Thorpe, who has walked over from her home in Knodishall with friends Agnes and Eric - he resplendent in his uniform of the Royal Marines. On the way back they call in for a drink at The Volunteer pub in Leiston. It's a decision that will set the course of Hilda's life. At the bar, engrossed in a discussion about the nature of English beer, are five American airmen - two of whom ask to join the English trio at their table. They chat about Eric's experiences in New York and Massachusetts - complemented by slightly more exaggerated tales of the metropolis from airman Edwin Rosenthal. The talk is of oversized cars and mixed grills, fierce blizzards and the height of the Empire State Building. Hilda is fascinated, and quick to laugh, too . . . and the newspaperman from a wealthy Long Island immigrant family is pretty much smitten there and then. This girl from a tiny Suffolk village is everything he's ever dreamed of.

Their fate is sealed. The romance sparks, is dampened down when Hilda - a country girl but no ing�nue - decides it's going a bit too fast, and then regains a momentum that ends in marriage at the Church of St Lawrence on the afternoon of July 7, 1945.

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The reception is held at the Legion Hut, just across the Common from Mill House, where she lives, and the Stars and Stripes flies on the flagpole with the Union Flag to honour Knodishall's first GI bride and her beau.

Today, old men recall the occasion when virtually the whole village celebrated - and they, as little boys, were confronted by more food and drink than they'd ever before seen in their lives.

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The happy couple honeymoon in the Scilly Isles and it isn't long before the bride gives away her white silk wedding dress to someone she feels needs it more. “After all,” she explains, “we're married now.”

“It was so typical of the time,” says the couple's son, Jack, of his parents' romance. “Most of the young Brits were away, overseas, and the Yanks were all here; and left the Brits standing! They'd had a different upbringing and had a different attitude towards women - plus, they tended to be taller and have a better physique. They'd had better food and their uniforms were much snappier, and they'd got money! They had petrol, all that food on the base, nylons . . . There was no competition!

“You can imagine that before the war this part of Suffolk was extremely isolated - basically a farming economy, with a low level of population, and more in common with the Elizabethan age than the 20th Century - and then suddenly it's as if these people who literally come out of the sky are landing from another planet!”

Jack's written a book charting the courtship of his parents. Letters from an Airfield not only tells the true story of a GI bride of the Eighth Air Force, it shows the wider context of how war affected their community, friends and family. During his research, he interviewed ladies in their 80s who remembered the arrival in East Anglia of the U.S. forces.

“As soon as you started talking about the Americans, the women, who at the time would have been 18 or 20, suddenly looked 'wired'! Often it was, and remained, the biggest single event in their lives: their first love, their first big excitement. It was an amazing period and I thought it was important to get some of that on paper, because those people are soon going to be all gone.”

More than five decades on from his parents' first meeting, Jack finally decided to read the letters his father sent his mother during their courtship, and which Hilda kept, dutifully, even though the marriage petered out. Jack used them to inspire, first, his MA dissertation, and then turned his writings into the book, complemented by other family correspondence, wider historical sources and those interviews with elderly Suffolk residents who told him their tales.

It did initially feel odd to read his father's words, because they opened a window onto a personal, intense and bygone period of about 15 months.

“As a child, your parents are figures of enormous authority, like gods. They make no mistakes! Then you get older and you realise they're just normal people. But, even so, it's a strange feeling when you're old and you look back at them as youngsters and read their feelings,” says Jack, who was born in 1947.

“It feels almost like spying or being a peeping Tom, looking into private stuff that shouldn't really concern you but does concern me, because I'm their offspring!”

He'd long known about the courtship correspondence, “because my mother had a box that said 'Ed's letters to me', which were obviously private. I'd seen it knocking around. But I didn't want to look and never did.

“Then, obviously, when she died, I could have thrown it away or burned it. But I kept it. It was some time before I actually looked at the contents.

“I remember thinking 'I don't want to read these while my father's still alive, because he's written these to his girlfriend at a very early age, he's still alive, and I don't really want to be prying into his personal life in that way.'

“He died quite a long time after my mother, and had been dead three or four years before I actually read them.”

What Jack hasn't done is reproduce the text of the letters verbatim; in fact, there are very few direct quotations. Rather, the detail of the correspondence helps form the foundation of the book.

“Inevitably, being letters between a boy and a girl when they've first met, they're carried away with the romance of it,” he says. “Unfortunately, I haven't got anything my mother wrote to my father, but his get a bit slushy! It was obvious from the correspondence that he'd come on a bit too strong, initially, and she'd at one point, after a month or two, pulled back.

“She had to think about things. He was getting very serious; there was the question of sex; he was talking about marriage, and she was thinking 'Just hang on . . . an American from a different world . . .' So she pulled back a bit and that put the cooler on things - all very normal - then she got over that and said 'Let's keep it going.' Things gradually, much more slowly and naturally, gathered pace, until they got married.”

Jack's dad hailed from New York, the middle son of a Jewish immigrant who in the late 19th Century had come to New York from Germany as a boy. Ed's father had got involved in a clothing company and started his own business, to great success. He married a girl from Washington state and they had a big house on Long Island.

Ed, born in 1914, went to university in Wisconsin for its noted journalism school, graduating in the mid 1930s and landing a job on The Buffalo Times. He moved on to the warmer climes of Galveston in Texas, and then San Francisco, before joining up and training in Morse code. He sailed to England on the Queen Mary, caught a train from Glasgow and arrived at Leiston Airfield towards the end of 1943.

“He wasn't a flyer. By that time they realised they'd got a newspaperman, so they put him in the PR office. His job was to write up all the stories,” explains Jack.

Hilda, meanwhile, was born in 1920, the daughter of a carpenter at the Garrett works in Leiston. She was “a typical Knodishall girl” who worked as a chambermaid on a local farm. “But she had a bit of a spark about her. Everybody noticed it.”

Hilda later got a job as a housemaid and nanny at the Thorpeness home of the Agate family - Mrs Grace Agate is down in the annals of Aldeburgh as a one-time mayoress. The family had a second residence in London. “Mother started to see life higher up the ladder, and she liked what she saw, though she was still an ordinary working girl.”

The Thorpeness pad in Lakeside Avenue, next to the meare, was very close to The Ness House, where in the summer of 1939 a Lady Tufnell arrived for a holiday, accompanied by Irish maid Anne Jordan. Annie was also sparky, says Jack, and became friends with his mother.

As the rumbles of war grew louder, Annie worked in a St Albans factory making components for aircraft cockpits and suggested Hilda should follow. She did - after a bit of a row with the Agates, during which she was sacked. Apparently she'd not put up enough of a fight when British military forces sought to requisition the Thorpeness house for the war effort!

Hilda, Annie and Annie's sister would all come back to Knodishall for weekends. In fact, Annie married Hilda's brother, Jack (after whom Ed and Hilda's son was named).

Brother Jack's fortunes overshadowed the early weeks of Hilda and Ed's romance. He'd been a stoker with a motor torpedo boat and was in Hong Kong towards the end of 1941 when Kowloon came under attack from Japanese forces. Jack found himself part of a sad-looking group of 70 survivors who trekked 3,000 miles across China to Burma, arriving in the Burmese capital on Valentine's Day, 1942.

His family had had a letter stating he was missing in service, and implying that the worst must be expected. But, on a Sunday afternoon in May, mother Florrie looked up from washing the dishes to see her only son opening the garden gate and smiling from ear to ear.

Then in 1944, just before Ed and Hilda met, Jack's destroyer was torpedoed. He having once returned virtually from the dead, his family was loath to accept he was now gone, although reports made it clear he was among the 200 who perished.

The book follows the couple's life up until their July wedding in 1945. So, what happened next?

In late 1944 Ed had moved to the Eighth Air Force HQ at High Wycombe. His beloved was in St Albans. Often, after they'd met up, Ed would see Hilda off on one train and then miss his own!

After their wedding they lived in north London and Ed got a job with United Press.

Their son remembers regular childhood trips to America to visit relatives - taking the train from Waterloo to Southampton to board an impressive liner such as the Queen Mary and sailing to New York via Cherbourg in about four and a half days.

Cabin class might have been second class, but it offered Edwardian splendour, with bellboys and waiters in tailcoats. With his father's family money and a decent job, the Rosenthals were reasonably wealthy. Suffolk girl Hilda loved that, smiles her son. “She'd got the taste of the high life. She took to it like a duck to water.”

Ed had been viewed, slightly, as the black sheep of the family and hadn't had an easy relationship with his father. As a result, he'd received what were considered fairly dud shares . . . including IBM stock that proved anything but duff. “They saw me through school and college; they furnished my father's lifestyle for the rest of his life, really!

“There was plenty of money and my mother spent it to best effect! Of course, the American side of the family thought she was fantastic, because she was effervescent and hospitable, outgoing, good-looking and great fun.”

However, a divide grew between husband and wife. Hilda loved a party, while Ed had a greater interest in world affairs and needed more intellectual stimulation, says Jack.

The couple built a house in Aldeburgh for weekends. Then Ed met another woman on the train and gradually the marriage unravelled. Hilda met another man.

“They were in effect divorced by the time I was about 12, but there were big cracks before that. I was sent off to boarding school when I was 10, probably partially to get me out of the way,” says Jack. His father went to Mexico in the mid 1960s, got a divorce there and married his English girlfriend.

Ed had a house at Witnesham, near Ipswich - the cartoonist Carl Giles was a friend and neighbour - and commuted to Fleet Street.

He worked for Reuters and was there until he retired, enjoying some of the halcyon days of old-school journalism - trilby hats, notebooks, hard drinking - and getting out just in time, before technological changes and the sharper financial focus promoted by the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Eddy Shah swept away much of the romance.

“Dad also loved gardening. He'd rush home from London to Witnesham. The first thing he'd do when he got home was grab a torch and rush out into the garden to inspect how much the vegetables had grown!”

Ed also bought a house in Arizona, spending British winters in Phoenix and summers in Suffolk. He died about 12 years ago.

Hilda, meanwhile, had bought a bungalow in Knodishall after the divorce. From there she could see the window of the room where she was born.

Jack worked for The Forestry Commission for a long time - he was a land agent in Yorkshire - but resigned in 1977. His mother was alone by this stage and he started a nursery alongside the bungalow.

After Jack married about 30 years ago, his dad bought him a field at Theberton for �9,000, which gave him his first crop of asparagus. Jack subsequently bought another field at Knodishall.

A second bungalow had been built on the plot of his mother's home. After she died in 1984, he sold both and bought “this place here” - today, Reckford Farm Shop at Middleton, near Yoxford. It had five or six acres and he had another 18 or 20 acres on the other side of the village. Asparagus is still the main produce grown, along with crops such as blueberries and raspberries.

Writing his dissertation in 2002 - for the MA course he studied part-time at the University of East Anglia - thus had to be fitted in around the rhythm of the seasons!

The father of three grown-up children - aged 19, 21 and 23 - is pleased to have produced both an academic paper and the later book, despite the hard work and challenges involved. “I have to say the whole experience has been great fun.” He's also got in mind a future project, involving someone who lives far from Suffolk and is in his 80s. “So if I'm going to do it, I'll have to get on!”

And what of the Americans at Leiston Airfield? Well, by coincidence, the 357th Fighter Group left for a base near Munich the day after Hilda and Ed's wedding.

“Suddenly it was all over,” writes Jack. “The great expanse of airfield and its scattered township lay empty and silent.”

Letters from an Airfield: The True Story of a GI Bride of the Mighty Eighth is published by The History Press at �14.99. ISBN 978-0752452524

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