Saturday, May 10, 2014

Cymraeg Am Byth - Welsh Forever

by Beth von Staats

Roma Toman Condon with her father, Albert Toman
September 28, 1944

Along with the vast majority of teenagers living in World War II war torn Great Britain, like Her Royal Highness Princess Elizabeth, Roma Toman had strength of purpose. In a generation where "all gave some, and some gave all", as everyone else did around her, this young woman rolled up her sleeves to do the work that needed to be done to win the war so crucial to preserve a nation, to preserve an empire, to preserve a way of life going back a millennium.

Roma Toman's contribution to the war effort saw her working for the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes, commonly known as the NAAFI. Created by the British government in 1921, the NAAFI ran recreational establishments for the British Armed Forces, as well as selling goods to British servicemen. During World War II, over 96,000 personnel operated over 7,000 canteens, providing critical supports to the British military. To soften the load and support the British servicemen, primarily Navy enlisted men based in her home of Milford Haven, Wales, Roma Toman sold supplies needed for the local British Navy Base and ships moored in the harbor. As the war progressed, Americans, Australians, Free French and Canadians joined the ranks stationed in Milford Haven, most predominantly "the Yanks from across the pond". The NAAFI stepped things up a notch further and served the entire Allied Forces as richly as their own men, a service well received by those so far from home.
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"I like a man who smokes a pipe."
- Roma Toman -
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Everett Condon, an American hailing from Fairhaven, Massachusetts, made a life changing decision after the Attack on Pearl Harbor. He left high school before graduating and enlisted into the United States Navy. Far more fortunate than most serving during World War II, he saw very little action, instead assigned to be a Storekeeper, Third Class at an American military hospital in Hakin, Pembrokeshire, Wales. In this role, Mr. Condon insured the soldiers and sailors in need of urgent medical care, as well as their care takers, were adequately provisioned by picking up and then inventorying and storing supplies ordered by Naval Officers on the base. Replacing a Storekeeper imprisoned for selling provisions on the black market, Mr. Condon was meticulous in his duties.

Roma Toman Condon and Everett Condon
St. Catherine's Anglican Church
Milford Haven,  Pembrokeshire, Wales
The U.S. Navy found the easiest way to secure supplies needed for the military hospital was from the efficient services afforded by the NAAFI, located nearby at the Milford Haven docks. On one visit to simply secure two boxes of matches to light his own cigarettes, Mr. Condon met a Welsh teenager, who smugly informed him that she preferred a man who smoked a pipe. By the time they met again at a local dance, Mr. Condon had changed his smoking habits, and so began their shared life journey and 60 years of marriage together.

At age 19, Roma Toman Condon became one of a diaspora of approximately 100,000 British women, many accompanying over 11,000 infants and children, to leave the United Kingdom after marrying Allied Servicemen during World War II. Most were bound for Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and like Mrs. Condon, the United States of America.

Mrs. Condon was one of over 2,300 British women, along with their infants and children, aboard the former luxury liner Queen Mary on it's maiden voyage of War Brides transported from Southampton, England to New York City. As a "beneficiary" of the War Brides Act of 1944, a law that enabled "foreign non-Asian" spouses and children of American military personnel to enter the United States, Mrs. Condon became one of over 105,000 women from around the world to join their American husbands after the conclusion of hostilities.

Tidworth Army Base
Although Roma Toman Condon traveled at the expense of the American government in deference to her husband's military service, her journey was far from extravagant. Leaving her home, her family, her friends, her support network, and all that normally grounds a teenager, Mrs. Condon ventured alone from Milford Haven, Wales to London. In London, she reported to an American route transportation officer, who shipped her off by train to Tidworth Army Base in Hampshire, where British War Brides venturing to the United States were "processed".

War Brides at Tidworth Army Base were warehoused in military style bunkers, with little privacy afforded. Offered "lectures on life in the United States" and "travel instructions", War Brides were finger printed, immunized and compelled to undergo intrusive medical examinations. The War Brides' British pounds were converted to American currency. Once the flurry of initial activities were complete, boredom set in, with the mud, crying babies and uncomfortable accommodations weighing the women down and emotionally exhausting them. As Mrs. Condon vividly recalls, the youngest War Bride at Tidworth was only two years younger than she was, the oldest 65 years old. Her saddest recollection of her stay is of a young woman who after being processed for travel was served divorce papers that her husband filed in the United States.

British War Brides on Route to the United States
On February 1, 1946, the 2,300 War Brides, infants and children warehoused at Tidworth Army Base finally made their way to Southampton, England, their last stop on their British home soil. Unfortunately, the comfortable tour buses filled quickly, so Mrs. Condon and five other young women were compelled ride on a military bus with hard and shaky wooden benches. At nearly age 88, Roma Toman Condon recalls the experience as if it were yesterday. "It was a wild Army drive that hit every bump." Still, as uncomfortable and downright scary as the two hour ride to Southampton was, later the same day, Mrs. Condon boarded the Queen Mary. After two long days waiting on the ship for strong winter gales to pass, her voyage to a new life with her American husband was finally under way.

British Mothers Feed Their Infants Aboard the Queen Mary
Like most of the women and children on board the Queen Mary, Roma Toman Condon had never traveled by ship.With winter squalls bordering on gales rocking the ship endlessly, seasickness was rampant. "Oh yes, I was one of the patients," Mrs. Condon recalls with no fondness. Although sick the first two days of the voyage, Mrs. Condon remembers the mid-journey to be relatively enjoyable. "We had movies aboard the ship and other entertainment." Unfortunately, the last two days journeying on the Queen Mary mirrored the first two. Heavy land swells caused the ship to roll considerably, and Mrs. Condon was heavily seasick yet again. In short, the trip "across the pond" was down right miserable for the teenager.

Finally on February 9, 1946, the Queen Mary arrived with her precious cargo in New York City. Eager to debark, all British women and children were confined to their staterooms until a thorough inspection of the liner was completed, a process that took over seven hours. Finally, groups organized alphabetically were taken by bus to the New York City Military Armory. Mrs. Condon vividly recalls, "It looked like a cattle inspection when we entered the Armory. I was afraid I would miss my husband, and I would be lost there." The husbands were brought to a balcony area to await sight of their wives, and the women were "checked off" one by one. The women, some with infants and small children in tow, were then seated in a bleacher area.

Everett and Roma Condon with Jillian, 1947
Everett Condon waited anxiously in the balcony area for several hours watching the women and children pass by him. He remained attentive in fear he might miss Mrs. Condon in the organized confusion. Finally, following the alphabetical system used, he knew his wife would arrive soon, so he moved downstairs, looking for her. In spite of all of Mr. Condon's best efforts, it was his wife who sighted him first, and they hurriedly reunited.

In an interview the next day with a newspaper reporter from the New Bedford Standard-Times, Everett Condon was asked what his wife said to him upon their initial reunion. Mr. Condon replied simply, "She didn't say a word. She just kissed me."
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Although Roma Condon ventured home several times
through the years, it was over 40 years before the
couple returned to Milford Haven together. Here,
Everett and Roma Condon stand before Hubberston
Fort, a pipe still nestled in Mr. Condon's hand. Although
Everett Condon died in 2004, Roma Condon continues
to enjoy her friends and growing family, to whom she
gifts her Welsh heritage in Dennis, Massachusetts.
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SOURCES:

The Oral History of my beloved mother, Roma Toman Condon

The American War Bride Experience, Foreign Born GI Brides of World War II

The New Bedford Standard-Times, First War Bride in Area Makes Tour Hunting Clothes, Has Silk Hose Supply, February 10, 1946.

NAAFI, History
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Beth von Staats is a short story historical fiction writer and administrator of 
Queen Anne Boleyn Historical Writers.

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11 comments:

  1. This is a fascinating story. I feel so sorry for your poor mother, I remember getting seasick on the ferry from Dover to Calais and that was only a 2 hour journey - your mother's a trooper! It sounds like it was all worth it in the end, though. Thank you for sharing your mother's story.

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    1. Thank you, Jess. Yes, my parents enjoyed a wonderful marriage. During the 1940's though, making this type of decision was very isolating to say the least. This was an age where there was no Skype, email, texting and the internet. Transatlantic phone calls cost $20 for 3 minutes, which was a lot of money back then.

      We communicated with my Welsh family via airmail letters and sending back and forth reel-to-reel tapes so we could hear each other's voices. When there is a will, there is a way... and my grandparents were determined to find it.

      My mother is fascinated with the internet, and especially would have LOVED Skype!!

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  2. Fascinating story, Beth! I didn't realize what the war brides had to go through. The name Condon caught my eye since my paternal grandmother was a Condon. ;)

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    1. Thank you Sophia Rose. There are many people of Irish heritage in Massachusetts. Condon is not a very common name in the USA at all, but it is common in the New England states, especially Maine.

      Yes, it is amazing what the War Brides went through, but especially women of Asian culture. Due to prejudice rampant against Asians at the time, Asian War Brides were not covered by the War Brides Act of 1944, and thus they had great difficulty reuniting with their husbands.

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  3. I enjoyed your post immensley and am so glad things worked out so very well for your mom! I have read some awful stories about war brides coming to Canada and being stuck out in the middle of the prairies in the middle of winter and being so afraid and homesick. it is lovely to read a happy story! Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Thank you for your very kind thoughts Donna.

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    2. I will add that homesickness was common of all War Brides. I am hopeful their husbands appreciated their sacrifices. When I think my mother was only 19 when she left Wales, it blows my mind. In our generation, 19 is VERY young, but during WWII, teenagers had to grow up FAST -- especially in Great Britain and the European Continent.

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  4. Wonderful tribute to your mother!
    Glenn Booker
    Wales

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  5. Several hundred women from south Wales married GIs including my aunt.
    Glenn Booker

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    1. If she married an American, perhaps your aunt and my mother traveled together.

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