As Valentine’s Day approaches, Sylvia O’Connor describes how being a 1940s Red Cross volunteer led to love – and whisked her off to the other side of the world.
During the hectic days of the Second World War, I left school and got an office job at the Piccadilly Hotel in London’s West End.
The whole area was full of American GIs, and all the office girls used to gather by the window to watch them in the street. It felt like watching a movie.
When I heard the Red Cross were looking for English girls to help out at their social clubs for the Americans, I decided to help.
I felt sorry for the GIs because they were so far away from home and I thought they must be lonely. Volunteering seemed the right thing to do – part of my war effort.
Still, my mum wasn’t best pleased at the idea of me working alongside the ‘Yanks’. I was only 15, and she’d heard they were ‘overpaid, oversexed and over here’.
She sent me out with a pepper pot, so I could throw pepper in the face of any GI who got ‘fresh’ with me!
‘Kind and respectful’
When I turned up for my first shift at the Washington Club in Mayfair, I felt like I was stepping into another country – there was American music playing from a jukebox, GIs playing pool, and a silver machine in the corner that was making doughnuts.
My job was to clear the tables when the Americans had finished eating, and I soon found myself chatting to many of them.
I heard all about their home towns, everywhere from San Francisco to North Dakota. And there was no need for my mum’s pepper pot – all the GIs I met were kind and respectful.
My first GI boyfriend was a quiet, lanky guy from Eureka, California. He bought me chocolates and flowers on our first date, and I’d never had flowers before in my life.
He was sent away soon after we met, but there was no shortage of nice American men at the Red Cross Club.
I soon began receiving marriage proposals – about one a week on a good week! – but for the most part I didn’t take them seriously.
Then I met Bob, an Irish American from Baltimore who swept me off my feet. He won my parents over by turning up for dinner with his pockets full of eggs, which were rationed in those days.
When the war ended, my mother made me a wedding dress and I packed my bags and flew to America to marry Bob. We had four lovely children together and, almost 70 years later, I’m still here in Baltimore.
If it hadn’t been for that Red Cross club, we never would have met.
Sylvia’s story is one of those told in the new bestseller GI Brides, by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi.