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woman remembers days as war bride
|By JEAN ZEHRINGER GIESIGE
Movies meant everything to Gwenda Wenning when she was a young woman.
World War II had started when she was 15, plunging her and every other Londoner into a
terrifying new world of destruction and deprivation. She worked during the day as a
wireless operator for the Royal Air Force, returning home after long hours of work to
whatever meager meal her mother could scrape together on the family's strict rations.
She bore it all with legendary British resolve. But she did like to
escape, whenever she could, to the movies. One day in October 1944, she was standing in a
long line at the cinema with a friend of hers. Behind them were two American soldiers, one
of whom, Wenning recalls, was especially tall and handsome.
"We told them that the line was too long, they would never get
in," she said. "And sure enough, they didn't. But they were waiting for us when
we came out."
She and the soldier, in London recovering from gunshot wounds he had
suffered in fierce fighting in France, had three dates before he was called back to the
front with all other walking wounded for the Battle of the Bulge. She wrote to him every
day after he returned to the fighting, and he answered whenever he could.
Those letters eventually led to the marriage of Werner and Gwenda
Wenning of Celina, and Gwenda Wenning's new life in the United States. Some said it would
never last, but 56 years later they remain married, and still vividly remember the great
and terrible adventure that brought them together.
The war, such a heroic struggle for Americans, was even worse for the
British, who watched the battle rage just 22 miles from their shore, Gwenda Wenning said.
Earlier this year she wrote down her memories of those years in an account she has called
"British War Bride."
In it, she describes the first day of the war for the British, Sept. 3,
1939. "I remember vividly listening to the announcement on the radio," she
writes. "I was with my family on holiday at the seaside. We went down to the beach
for a last swim before going home. Alas, we were too late. The sappers were busy putting
barbwire along the beaches and they had already mined the area. When we asked why, the
answer was, OSorry, kiddies, a war has begun, the enemy is only 22 miles away and we are
doing everything we can to stop an invasion.' It was a sad way to end a great holiday. We
were very fearful, as we had no idea what war entailed."
She and her family were soon to learn. All of London, it seemed, went
to work for the war. Rationing started almost immediately. Rations of food and clothing
were particularly tight. "I remember my mother returning from the shops with two
grocery bags, which were not full," she writes in her book. "Looking at my
father, she told him, OThis is your ration of food for the week.' My father looked at it
and said, OI believe I can manage with that amount.' With tears in her eyes she replied,
OYou don't understand. That's not just for one person, it's for the six of us."
Her mother explained that their rations < eight ounces of meat per
person per week, four ounces of sugar, two ounces of butter < would never be more, and
may be less if the war lasted longer than they hoped. "But with British ingenuity we
managed," she writes.
"Every green spot in England, school football fields, playgrounds,
vacant lots, fields, front and back gardens of every house were quickly plowed or dug by
hand and turned into vegetable gardens," she writes. She remembers her father, who
drove a gasoline truck during the week, setting off for the family garden on the weekend
with his tools in a wheelbarrow.
There was no gasoline; private cars were put up on blocks for the
duration of the war, she said. There was no new clothing. "I had only one pair of new
shoes and one dress during the entire six-year duration of the war," she writes. Her
mother unraveled old sweaters to knit new ones. Her father learned to repair shoes.
All of their hardships were endured amidst the terror and destruction
of the Nazi bombing of London. Ducking into bomb shelters, recognizing the sound of buzz
bombs, became routine for Londoners. Her family thought of fleeing to Australia, but when
her eight-year-old cousin was drowned on a British ship sunk by German U-boats when he was
being evacuated from London with other children, the family decided to stay put.
Little wonder that young Gwenda loved to go to the movies, so much that
she would trade her sugar rations away to her father, notorious for his sweet tooth, for
the price of a ticket.
And it was the movies that led her to her next great adventure. After
the war ended, Werner Wenning was discharged to his home in Carthagena. From there, he
wrote to her, asking her to marry him and sending her airfare to meet his family. "I
had to do everything on paper," he said.
His father wrote to her mother, assuring her that Werner was of good
character. And her family tearfully let her go. "My family had always been
adventurous, and although they didn't like to see me go, they thought, OIf that's what she
wants to do, that's the way it must be,' " Gwenda Wenning said.
She flew into New York City, which didn't seem all that different from
London. Mercer County was another story. It was so flat, the landscape dotted with big
barns and wooden houses (in her mind, the only sturdy house was made of brick).
Fortunately, she writes in her memoirs, "I was taken to stay with my future
sister-in-law, who had a lovely brick home."
She was charmed by the large and noisy Wenning family, and agreed to
become a part of it. Werner and Gwenda Wenning were married on May 11, 1946. The
adjustment wasn't always easy. She missed her family, and she remembers one rude
shopkeeper telling her that she should learn to speak English. But she reached out to
other British war brides in the area, establishing friendships that remain today.
She still returns to England whenever she can, particularly enjoying
the visit when she is accompanied by one or more of her seven grandchildren. "We are
the survivors of World War Two," she writes, in the conclusion of "British War
Bride." "Most of us manage to go back home from time to time. Our country will
not let us go completely. Our roots go deep into our British heritage even though we have
been here for so many years.
"War was a unique experience, devastating in its brutality, unlike
anything else that has happened in our lifetime. It was history in the making. We were
part of that history."
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