I am so, so proud and full of joy to announce, that I have my first article in a journal. This is also my first article in English. Thank you. Dr. Julie Allen for trusting me and giving me the opportunity to share my grandmother´s story as a Danish war bride. I hope she would be proud of the way, I portrait her story and through her other war brides´ cultural journey into American society after WWII.
The Bridge – Journal of the Danish American Heritage Society
Volume 45 – Number 1 2022
Else Marie Pedersen’s Life as a Danish War Bride, 1948-1955
Everywhere around her people were sick, throwing up, lying on the stairs and on deck, exhausted from motion sickness. Some even shouted out that it would be better if the boat went down; they had had enough and could not take it anymore. The smell of vomit was everywhere—there is nothing pretty about the body’s discharges.
On this October day in 1948, Else Marie Pedersen was one of the few on board the military vessel USS General Harry Taylor who was not seasick, but she had a bad cough and ended up being treated in the ship’s infirmary for bronchitis. Many of the European women and children onboard were malnourished and needed medical treatment. USS General Harry Taylor was one of many ships carrying European brides and their offspring across the Atlantic Ocean to the American servicemen they had married during and after World War II. In the media, the ships were known to the public by many names, including stork ships, brothel ships, bride ships, and hell ships. The various names sum up the different, often conflicting narratives about the brides arriving in America.1
There have been war brides as long as there have been wars, but there has never been a matrimonial exodus equal to what was seen in the years immediately after World War II. Elfrieda Berthiaume Shukert and Barbara Smith Scibetta, two daughters of war brides who researched the topic, estimated that one million foreign women married American servicemen during and immediately after the war. In their 1988 book War Brides of World War II, they report that US war brides came from fifty countries; approximately seventy-five percent of war brides eventually landed in the United States, the largest immigration wave since the 1920s.2 every one of these brides carried with them stories of hardship, love, and cultural shock.
The war brides and their children were a topic of fascination and gossip for the American public. News about them and their journeys filled newspapers. The pairing of “war” and “bride” epitomized the conflicting ideas and images about foreign-born brides that circulated in the immediate postwar years. The designation carried within it diametrically opposed representations: one a perception of the women as perfect wives and the other as flighty, unreliable, hypersexualized women. The conjunction of “war” and “bride” reflected hopes, doubts, and a multiplicity of roles that the media and society labelled them with and “images of war brides as, variously, virgins and whores, wives and seductresses infiltrated the public discourse.”3 Both the wives and the society they joined were trying to cope with the personal and societal changes brought about by the end of the war.
Through these marriages brought about by World War II, we can gather information linked to topics about identity, cultural transitions, and many other interpersonal and geopolitical topics. The women mentioned above embarked on the hastily refitted former military vessel the day before the ship was set to leave Bremerhaven harbor in Germany. On October 29, 1948, the women started their journey towards their husbands and fiancés and their new lives in America. All of them had experienced the trauma of living through war and all of them were pursuing love and hoping for a better life on the other side of the Atlantic. Harry Truman would be elected president of the United States in a few days, but in this tumultuous moment—on turbulent waters and inundated with emotions connected to their departure from family and loved ones and insecurities about arriving in an unknown country—the women did not care about American politics or anything else for that matter. They were concerned about making it through the night.
The weather was rough, the temperature low; the small ship had tossed and turned for days in the high sea. In front of the ship cruised a boat sweeping for mines. The women were terrified—of the harsh sea conditions, of the mines. Although they were in love and full of anticipation for the next chapter of their lives, they were also sad to leave their loved ones behind. On board were hundreds of war brides with their children from countries including Holland, Belgium, Denmark, and Germany. Everywhere, on deck and in cabins, people were tightly squeezed together. The crew had to make a shift schedule for the passengers to accommodate everyone´s need for food and fresh air and to make sure there was room for everyone when they strolled or sat around on the deck or sat down in the galley to eat.
In quarters far removed from everyone else, the widely despised German women slept together, with forty to forty-five people per cabin. Crowded together with children hanging in hastily made cribs beside the narrow ship benches, they kept to themselves for most of the voyage. Belgian women, Dutch women, and women from other Allied countries usually slept in cabins with three to five other people.
Relatively few war brides were from Scandinavia, but there were some. One of these women was Else Marie Pedersen, my grandmother, from Copenhagen. In 1948 my Danish grandmother Else had married Air Force Sergeant Forest Edgar Forest Rhodes (whom she called Dusty) and followed him to his hometown San Antonio, Texas to pursue love and the American dream.
Image 1: Photograph of Forest Edgar (Dusty) Rhodes and Else Marie Pedersen. Unless otherwise noted, all images are from the author’s private collection.
Many accounts from war brides on the ships have survived. A common theme is the food onboard, which was plentiful. Living in Europe during the war years, the women were used to a life of rationed food; after embarking on the ships, they were astonished by the abundance of food. My grandmother wrote letters to her mother several times during the Atlantic crossing. In one letter, she writes:
Vi faar den mest pragtfulde Mad saa meget at man daarlig kan vakle afsted. Skibet gynger nu som en Bold i Vandet, men jeg synes det er sjovt.
[They serve the most magnificent food onboard; one can hardly stand up straight from saturation. The ship is tossing and turning like a ball in water, but I think it´s funny.] Later, she describes a drill on board ship:
I dag har vi haft Prøve med Redningsbælter og Redningsbaade. I Aften skal Henny og jeg i Biografen, det koster ikke en Klink….Om Bord er der alt hvad man kan ønske sig.
[Today, we had a drill with lifebelts and lifeboats. Tonight, Henny and I are going to the movies, it doesn´t cost a dime….On board is everything one could wish for.]
What awaited these women on the other side of the ocean was the expectation that they would be ideal wives for the returning soldiers, serving as a bridge between the spheres of war and home and reassuring Americans of their nation´s ability to “woo and win the admiration of foreigners.”4 Many in America were afraid of what kind of men would come home after serving abroad and the wives were seen as having an important role in “taming” the potentially dangerous men.
The war brides arrived in the United States under intense public scrutiny, but their reception by the population at large was generally positive. Despite this, war brides still faced assimilation problems. War brides who made the long journey across the ocean to the “land of plenty” were shocked to learn on arrival that there was an acute housing shortage.5 Many war brides had to live with strangers upon their arrival.6 My grandmother had never lived with her husband and when they moved in together in her new country, they shared the house with Else´s mother-in-law, who demanded that newlyweds’ bedroom door be kept open at all times.
Many war brides had unrealistic expectations about American life. Often, their only knowledge of America came from Hollywood movies and soldiers’ stories. As they confronted the disparities between the myth and the reality of life in America, they encountered unanticipated problems in adjusting to their new surroundings.7
The Role of the Red Cross
Before departure, on the voyage, and even after arrival, the Red Cross organization played a key role in reuniting European war brides with their American husbands. They helped organize the logistics of getting on the ship, finding the right quarters, answering questions, getting brides on the right transportation after arrival, and a multitude of other tasks involving everything that had to do with a smooth transition. On board the ship, they helped set up shipboard playgrounds and placed sterilizers and washtubs around the pool.
Red Cross officials decided to hold informational classes for the war brides, because it turned out the women had many unanswered questions about America and the life they were embarking on. Red Cross volunteers also recognized a need to “de-glamorize” the women’s view of America. They wanted “to bridge the gap between what Hollywood shows America to be like, and what these women will really find when they get there.”8 To correct these overhyped expectations, the Red Cross classes included lectures on American culture and discussions of topics such as the American education system, small-town community life, fashion, and the types of women’s clubs the war brides could eventually join to meet and get to know American women.
Once on board, the women had access to different types of printed material. One of the pamphlets informed the European women that Americans do not “settle down,” something my grandmother would experience to a degree she had not imagined when she left Denmark. Instead, Americans were far more likely to be on the move both physically and socially; “this mobile life may make you homesick,” the pamphlet warned.9 Brides were advised that one of the best ways for them to contribute to economic mobility was to be good homemakers, something my grandmother wholeheartedly tried to do by learning how to sew, cook, take care of a garden, and clean the house, plus, of course, take care of her children.
Before leaving for America, my grandmother had a professional career and earned her own money as a translator in Europe. Although the pamphlet suggested that no one would criticize the war brides for seeking employment outside the home, it also informed the women that their “main job… will be running the house.” Initially, my grandmother tried to fulfill the role that was expected of her but over time, she got frustrated and depressed, especially since her husband would not let her take a job, utilizing her professional skills.10 Many of her letters describe the monotony of sewing buttons on uniform shirts, cleaning, baking, and cooking. An amusing anecdote from my grandmother´s experience is that one of the books listed in the pamphlet that the brides were encouraged to read was Margaret Mitchell´s novel Gone with the Wind, which my grandmother according to her letters read at least three times. Whether the depiction in the book was in any way comparable to the life she lived in America is doubtful.
Denmark Before and During WWII
To understand how Else related to postwar America, with its excess and expectations, it is helpful to reflect on what Denmark was like at the time. During World War II, Denmark was occupied by the German army from April 1940 to May 1945. For most Danes, WWII meant shortages of goods, rationing, air-raid warnings, nightly blackouts, and closed national borders. However, despite shortages of certain goods, the Danes had one of the highest standards of living in Europe during the war years. After liberation on May 5, 1945, the Danish economy recovered relatively quickly, due in large part to the American economic recovery plan, the Marshall Plan. The money was used to rebuild infrastructure, industries, and buildings. It also gave Denmark an opportunity to modernize in a way that helped the country move forward and prosper in its effort to become a functional competitive country when it came to commerce between the western European countries and America.
More important to her individual story is the family Else left behind. Crossing the ocean as a war bride was a tremendous leap of faith. After all, at this point in history, families weren’t sure they would ever see each other again once they said their goodbyes on the quay at the ports. America was far away, there was no internet, and transatlantic travel was expensive and slow since you couldn´t just jump on a plane to visit each other. Goodbyes were emotional and, in many cases, final.
Else Marie Pedersen was born February 21, 1928, to Johannes and Nancy Pedersen. Her parents had eleven children in total, but the oldest children, a set of twins, died of tuberculosis, while another set of twins died before their first birthday. Of their seven children who survived infancy, Else was the middle child. She and her siblings grew up on Røde Mellemvej on Amager, a few miles outside Copenhagen, in a bungalow her father and her older brothers built together. Her father Johannes was a blacksmith and her mother, Nancy, worked in the home and did factory work. Money was tight, especially since Johannes often would drink up his salary. He was known in town for his temperament, and he would regularly beat up his family members. His nickname was ‘Red,’ both because of the color of his nose after bouts of heavy drinking and because he was known to be a socialist.
When the German army invaded Denmark, Else was twelve years old; by the time they left, she was seventeen.
Else was a bright student and was able to convince her reluctant parents—she was after all ‘just’ a girl, so what need did she have for an education? – to let her continue her education at “realen” [realskolen, or secondary school], with its focus on academic subjects, from which she graduated after ninth grade. Her older brothers followed in their father’s footsteps, however, and all became craftsmen of different sorts. During those vulnerable teenage years when a personality takes shape, Else would always wonder, with a knot in her stomach, if there would be enough food on the table that day and worry about the safety of her socialist father and brothers.
But the years under German occupation were also the beginning of Else’s lifelong love for America and Americans. A dream was seeded; she wanted to go to the country that helped liberate her beloved home country, Denmark. Else’s oldest sister, Aase, landed a job working for the Americans at Fürstenfeldbruck Air Force Base in Munich, Germany, as a translator for the Allied troops. In 1945 she married Air Force Sergeant Forest Edgar Rhodes. They were set to leave for America when Forest’s deployment ended. But one night, Forest, Aase, and Aase´s youngest sister Grethe were driving in an automobile when the car crashed. They had run a red light and were struck by a truck. Both Aase, who was pregnant with Forest’s child, and Grethe were hospitalized. Shortly thereafter Aase died. Grethe stayed in a coma for weeks. Forest walked away from the accident with minor bruises.
Four months later, Forest and Else were married, much to her family’s dismay. Else’s parents and siblings were still grieving the loss of Aase, and they were furious with Else and with Forest. Maybe they saw Else´s choice as taking advantage of the situation. Maybe they were right. Maybe Else was madly in love, as her letters indicate. Maybe she saw this turn of events as a golden ticket to the United States. Maybe the answers are not that simple, which tends to be the way in life. The reasons for people´s actions are a complex mixture of many factors. At any rate, tensions were high so Else had nothing to lose by following her dream and leaving for America. Can one blame her for seeking a better life?
So, my grandmother´s and grandfather´s love affair was founded on a family tragedy. This turned out to shape both her departure from her family and home country as well as her immersion into marriage and her new country, America. For Else, the stakes were high. Showing her family, she had made the right decision meant that she had to succeed in her quest. Her American dream and her marriage had to succeed. Only in that way could she prove she had made the right choice.
Arriving in America
But what was Else hoping to achieve in the United States and what did her reality turn out to be? How did she feel about her new country? Was she able to merge her Danish heritage with her new culture? What was America like back then and how did the country treat war brides?
As it entered the harbor in New York, the ship was buzzing with anxious and excited women crowded together on deck. They had spent hours fixing their hair, painting their nails, making sure the kids looked groomed and well cared for. During the voyage, they had learned the “Star Spangled Banner,” which they were singing while they nervously looked around to see if their husbands had arrived to collect them.
Image 2: Letter from Else Marie Pedersen Rhodes to her mother Nancy from Fort Hamilton, dated November 9, 1948.
My grandmother was looking forward to seeing the Statue of Liberty, but much to her disappointment, the vessel entered the harbor at an angle that made it impossible to view the symbol of America. Despite the tension in the family, she stayed in contact with her mother. In her first letter after arriving in America, she wrote:
… Indsejlingen til New York, jeg fik ikke Frihedsgudinden at se, vi kom ikke der i Nærheden, det var jeg meget skuffet over! Alt jeg saa var en snavset gammel havn, som man ser alle andre Steder. Et sølle lille Orkester paa 6 Mand spillede, men kunde ikke overdøve den øredøvende Larm fra vores og de andre Skibe, og som sagt tudede jeg til den store Guldmedalje, saa det hele var noget skuffende.
[…Entering New York, I did not get to see the Statue of Liberty, we were nowhere near it, much to my disappointment! All I saw was a dirty old harbor, no different from any other. A silly little orchestra of six men played but could not drown out the deafening noise from ours and other ships, like I said, I cried my eyes out, so everything was a big disappointment.]
I imagine the wind blowing her hair and turning her carefully crafted hairstyle into a frenzy. I hear the brides’ voices drifting away in the wind, drowned out by the loud pounding sounds of the water and scraps of music carried on the wind from the small welcoming band playing at the dock. Everyone had that familiar feeling of anticipation in their stomachs before experiencing something grand but unknown. But when they entered the harbor at an angle, I picture their shoulders falling and their eyes darting about before they let go of their emotions, turning their minds back to what they left behind instead of to the future they were facing.
My grandmother was full of emotions and already missed her mother terribly. In her letter she reports, “Indsejlingen til New York var ikke noget særligt, det fik mig kun til at længes efter dig lille Moder, jeg tudede, saa mit Ansigt var hovent hele Dagen” (Sailing into New York was nothing special, it only made me long for you, little mother, I cried so hard my face was swollen for the rest of the day). In this letter, and many others, my grandmother tries to plead and beg for her mother´s acceptance by telling her how much she misses her Danish meals. Sadly, she was so guilt-ridden for leaving and for marrying Aase’s husband that almost all her more than one hundred letters are full of self-doubt and a constant demeaning of herself. She makes frequent references, too, to the choice she made when she married Forest and her hope that one day, she would earn her mother’s forgiveness.
Like every war bride’s, Else’s early experiences had an impact on her transition to life in America. The national attention and overall positive welcome of war brides by Americans provided them with an experience that is unique in immigration history. Bands played, flags were being waved, and doors opened, but surprises awaited them as well.11 Reporting for Reader’s Digest, journalist George Kent saw the thousands of war brides as a geopolitical asset to America. He had a vision of person-to-person diplomacy through the medium of matrimony and argued that the wives would be respected spokesmen for the United States when they visited or wrote letters to their family and friends in their home countries.12
Entering America through New York, my grandmother proudly brought her Danish heritage, culture, and customs with her. On the Air Force base, at the dependent hotel in Germany, and later while on the ship, she had received a positive reception because of her Scandinavian heritage. In her letters, she proudly describes such experiences. For instance, she writes about staying at the dependent hotel in Bremerhaven while waiting to board the ship. At the hotel, a colonel with Danish heritage approached her and asked her to come directly to him if she saw or encountered anything unsatisfactory.
Much has changed in the way we define beauty since the 1940s. Reading my grandmother’s letters, I often was stunned how much energy she spent on lofty sentences describing her children’s Scandinavian features. I read her letters with the context of her era in mind, to gain insight into the time, in which they were written. She mentions the beauty of her children’s fair complexion and how strangers in the neighborhood commented on her daughter’s blond hair and fair skin. In articles at that time written about the war brides, observers repeatedly singled out the women’s fair complexions, impeccable grooming, and aquiline features as pleasing marks of whiteness, while reporters remarked upon the women’s blonde, good looks.13
Image 3: Else’s letter written from the English Channel, dated October 30, 1948. Else had to stay on board the ship. None of the women were allowed off the ship because some German women had not been behaving according to regulations.
On the ship, social events were arranged by the ship´s pastor, who turned out to have a Danish mother. My grandmother and another Danish passenger were offered the best seats next to the officers in the front row of the cinema, just because they were Scandinavians. As Danes they had special privileges on board. Often, Scandinavians were perceived with the highest regard, in contrast to other European and Asian war brides. The sentiments of the time are clear in the letters and the hatred towards Germans meant that there were many conflicts and confrontations at the hotel and on board the USS General Henry Taylor.
In a letter from the ship, Else complains about the misbehavior of some of the German war brides:
Der er ellers altid Vrøvl med de tyske Kvinder, de opfører sig under al Kritik. Forleden holdt den kommanderende Officer et Foredrag for de tyske Kvinder, blandt andet sagde han, at de maatte være indstillet paa at opføre sig paa en hel anden Maade i Amerika end i Tyskland. Vi havde ikke Tilladelse til at overvære Foredraget men noget siver der jo altid ud. De skal have faaet en meget alvorlig Irrettesættelse men det har de vel ogsaa nok trængt til længe. Der er ogsaa blevet klaget over, at de ikke er renlige nok. I Dependents hotel boede vi i Værelse hvor der var 3 tyske Piger. Den ene af dem blev gal paa mig, hun sagde, at jeg altid opholdt mig i Badeværelset, så svarede jeg hende, at det var bedre altid at opholde sig i Badeværelset end altid at sove med sin Mand, hvor der var 2 andre Mænd tilstede. Det er nemlig saadan, at hendes Mand boede sammen med 2 andre Soldater, og saa sover Konerne sammen i et andet Rum, det vil altsaa sige, at der er 3 Mænd i det ene Værelse og 3 Kvinder i det andet og det er forbudt at sove sammen naturligvis. Desuden rendte dette Kvindemenneske rundt i Natkjole, hvilket ogsaa er forbudt, når der er fremmede Mennesker rundt om hende. Jeg gav hende Besked og sagde ogsaa at efter Regulationerne havde hun Ordre til ikke at være støjende, den gav jeg hende også, og at det ikke alene var om Dagen hun støjede det var ogsaa om Natten. Hun blev saa rasende at hun skreg, det var Løgn og hun vilde tæve mig. Jeg kiggede hende bare lige ind i Ansigtet og sagde til hende, at det vilde jeg ikke gøre, hvis jeg var hende, saa kunde hun let faa Lov at blive i sit Tyskland, hvis jeg meldte det til Obersten!
[There are always issues with the German women, who do not behave according to any rules. The other day the commanding officer had to give a talk where he stressed that they would have to prepare themselves to behave differently in America than they had done in Germany. We were not allowed to participate in the meeting, but a little gossip always escapes meetings like that. Reportedly, they received a very serious reprimand, but they have had that coming for a long time. There have also been complaints that they are not clean enough. Back at the dependents’ hotel (in Bremerhaven) we stayed in a room with three German girls. One of them got upset with me, she said I spent too much time in the bathroom, then I said to her that staying in the bathroom for a long time was better than sleeping with your husband when two other men were present in the room. The fact of the matter is that her husband stayed with two other soldiers, while the wives sleep together in another room, meaning that there are three men in one room and three women in another and, naturally, they are not allowed to sleep together. Moreover, this creature was running around in her nightgown, which is also not allowed when there are strangers around. I told her straight and informed her that according to regulations she was supposed to not be noisy, I said that too, and that it was not only during the daytime but also at night. She was furious and started screaming that I was lying and that she would beat me up. I looked her straight in the eye and told her that I would think twice before I did that because she would have to stay back in her Germany if I reported that to the colonel!]
This excerpt from my grandmother’s letter is in line with the sentiments of the time. The tension between women on the Allied side and German war brides on the other was real and the raw feelings from suffering during WWII found an outlet in these conflicts. It is a slice of the time in which it is written, and the emotions directed at citizens of Denmark’s former occupier to the south are clear.
Else’s New Life in San Antonio, Texas—with her Mother-in-Law
According to Anna Claire Amundson´s M.A thesis “Sentimental Journey?: The Immigrant Experience of World War II-era War Brides in Montana,”many war brides experienced a harsh reception from their husband´s families.14 When the ships first started arriving, many Americans were excited and greeted the young women with music, waving at them on the docks. But as more and more war brides arrived and especially after the War Bride Act of December 1945 allowed more brides than the quota had initially permitted, negative sentiments rose. When it became clear that the war brides and their children took priority over servicemen who had ended their military service and wanted to come home to their families, furious protests erupted.
After arriving in New York, my grandmother was bussed to the military base Fort Hamilton where she waited until Forest picked her up. They drove to San Antonio, Texas where Forest was stationed at an Air Force base.
Everything was new to Else: the climate, the food, the way of life. But more than anything, living with her mother-in-law came as a shock to her. The housing shortage in postwar America was dramatic, and due to this, it was not uncommon for multiple generations of family members to share living accommodations. Veterans with foreign-born wives often had to live with the veteran’s parents. For many of the reunited couples this put an added strain on the wife’s immigrant experience. In a 1989 survey, fully seventy-six percent of British war brides said that when they began married life in the United States they lived with other people. It does not come as a surprise that when the adjustment to married life took place under the scrutiny of the husband´s family, additional problems could develop. My grandmother, along with many other war brides, faced openly hostile environments.15
The one area that war brides most frequently identified as a problem was their relations with their in-laws. At the beginning of her time in America, my grandmother expressed frustration but a willingness to understand where her mother-in-law was coming from. Later, though, the hostility between the two women became obvious and so contagious that the mother-in-law had to move in with her other son and his wife.
Conflict often arose due to the simple fact that the son had married a foreign woman. In the case of my grandmother, I can only imagine how it must have felt to be the sister to the wife Forest was originally planning to bring to America. Further, he had originally married an American woman, whom he had divorced. One mother-in-law, quoted in Yank, recalled that her “son was engaged to a girl he had gone through school with. They had the same interests, and she´s a beautiful, intelligent girl. They had great plans… But then, while he was overseas, this happened.”16 Certainly, resentful in-laws did play a part in inhibiting the adjustment of war brides to their new homes. Else’s mother-in-law, who bore the same name as her own moth-
er, Nancy, was a woman of faith. She was also a Southern woman with conservative values, very different from the socialist values Else grew up with in Denmark. Early on, Else tried her best to assimilate in every respect; she even wrote her mother and asked her to send a Bible. That project failed, however; in numerous letters, Else expresses dismay about the self-righteous monologues she had to endure from her husband’s mother.
Else tried to recreate a little taste of home, turning parts of the backyard into a vegetable garden. Unfortunately, beets and radishes do not grow as well in the Texan dessert as they do in the clayey Danish soil. Instead, she turned to the kitchen, trying her hardest to learn how to cook American food. During the war, many mothers did not want their daughters in the kitchen for fear of food waste. The same was true in my grandmother’s home. She became incredibly good at cleaning but could hardly boil an egg. So, arriving in America with the expectation that she would be a homemaker, she worked hard to learn the ropes. But she was not a very adept cook. She struggled and never appreciated her time in the kitchen. It seemed to Else that everything she did, she did wrong. She cooked Danish pork roast and American Bundt cakes, but not even the Danish apple pie was to her mother-in-law’s taste.
Moving from a socialist Danish family to a pious Southern conservative household was hard. When she wrote her mother, Else used her letters to untangle her thoughts and as a safe place to voice her opinions.
Many war brides manifest a polarization in gender roles, which my grandmother echoes when she writes about the expectations of her domestic role and her husband’s opposition to her taking a job outside of the home. As presented in the cultural discourse of the mid-1940s, war brides embodied the key characteristics of the ideal postwar housewife: devoted wives, dedicated mothers, and eager consumers.17 My grandmother tried to convince Forest to allow her to get a job and contribute to the family´s household income, which he reluctantly agreed to, on condition that she only work from home, taking care of another woman´s child while the woman went to work.
The search for stability in postwar America fueled a push to stabilize domestic gender relations. The postwar “embrace” of family-centered domesticity sometimes came at the cost of personal fulfillment or individual aspirations and the process of renegotiating gender arrangements was difficult, contentious, and sometimes bitter.18
When European war brides sought to carve out a little piece of home and combine it with traditions in their home country, whether in the form of something tangible like a vegetable garden, dinner recipes, or more intangible like raising children with Christian values, the women’s new relatives did not always appreciate the introduction to a foreign culture. For my grandmother and the hundreds of thousands of other war brides it was difficult to maintain their own identities in this judgmental and frequently contradictory environment. In my grandmother’s case, her mother-in-law thought she was trying to take advantage of her son.
The outbreak of the Korean war shortly after their arrival in the US also caused disappointment and heartache for war brides whose husbands reenlisted or were called back to active duty from the reserves. As an active-duty Air Force man, my grandfather was sent to Korea, leaving my grandmother alone in her new country with an infant son. My grandmother was shocked, as she had fully believed the “never again” promise of no more wars after WWII. For women who had looked upon America as the land of peace, it was a bitter pill to swallow.19
On the Move: Texas, Delaware, Virginia, and Michigan
Forest served in the Air Force throughout his life, which meant that the family lived a very transitory life. Following her husband, my grandmother constantly moved states when he was redeployed. Within her first two years in America, she lived in Texas, Delaware, Virginia, and Michigan. It was also hard to keep packing everything up, sometimes three times a year, especially while pregnant and with little ones running around. She did, however, enjoy living farther away from her mother-in-law, who gave her a hard time about her lack of abilities as a mother and wife.
Like Else, many war brides were shocked to find out that they would be living with their mothers-in-law and that their lives would not be as glamorous as they had hoped. Some also had to cope with abusive husbands. Some brides wanted to leave and go back to Europe. But there were few facilities to transport war brides who wanted to return to their native country. Not many people wanted to assist war brides, especially those divorced from American servicemen or veterans.20
Some war brides faced a difficult life in America because their husbands were alcoholics. Heavy drinking was so common among soldiers overseas that a woman sometimes did not realize until after she arrived in the US that her husband’s drinking habits were extreme. My grandmother knew Forest had a hard time leaving the bottle, but after the automobile crash, he had vowed to never drink again, a promise my grandmother believed. War brides who were unhappy with their husbands, especially those whose husbands were abusive, were afraid their children would be taken away from them if they attempted to leave or return to their home countries.21
Women whose husbands remained in the military found it even harder to get out of an abusive situation, because frequent transfers prevented them from establishing a network of friends who could help. Unfortunately, my grandmother experienced this situation as well. Forest was an abusive alcoholic and the couple moved around so much that Else had no network to reach out to. My grandmother talks in her letters about the alcohol and the whisky but kept an account in her private journal of the physical abuse she endured. War brides like Else usually kept their problems from their families at all costs, not wanting to hear “I told you so.” Unwilling to admit that their marriages were a mistake and afraid to seek help from strangers, some women remained with their abusive husbands. The usual public reaction in the 1940s and 50s was to assume that an abused woman was guilty of something and deserved the treatment she got.22
Image 4: This passenger manifest is from when Else boarded an airplane with her two children, Edgar Forest Rhodes Jr. and Nancy Marie Rhodes to meet her husband on an army base in Marokko. My mother, Sharon Ann Rhodes, was born on a base hospital in Casablanca in June of 1956. Image in the public domain.
My grandmother stayed with my grandfather until he was deployed to Fürstenfeldbruck in Germany once more in 1959 and she was able to return to Denmark without losing her children. She took the children on a vacation in Denmark to see their grandparents and then didn’t come back. When he found out she would not be returning, he came to fetch them, only to realize Else wanted to stay and create a new life there for herself and her young children, including her three-year-old daughter, Sharon Ann Rhodes, my mother.
The Loneliness of Cultural Clashes
Both Else and American culture were influenced by the shifts in the national political climate between 1948 and 1955. Else’s years in America encompassed the beginning of the cold war. In her letters, my grandmother frequently refers to the danger of communism and the likelihood that the Soviet Union would invade Denmark. Her cold war rhetoric reflected American propaganda, so her family in Denmark was not as concerned as Else seemes to be, which created tensions between her and her parents. Else was frustrated that her family was not more thankful for America’s financial and military contributions to Denmark.
Not only did my grandmother change her ways to try to adapt and integrate into her new American way of life, American society also changed because of the vast number of foreign war brides in America. To give just one example, if one million women come to a country, they will inevitably influence the way American families discipline their children through their own parenting practices. As anecdotal evidence of this, my grandmother opposed using the belt my grandfather and many of his friends were so keen on when disciplining their children. War brides also influenced what household goods were bought, exercising their economic power when they consumed goods, news, and literature. In that sense the personal and the geopolitical intertwined, making nationality and gender a lens through which we can better understand both the war brides and American society.
Once settled in the US, a war bride had to consider whether she would become a naturalized citizen. Since 1922, an alien woman marrying an American citizen did not automatically acquire American citizenship through her marriage. For war brides, however, the five-year residency requirement prior to filing first papers to petition for US citizenship was waived. As the spouse of an American citizen, a war bride (or groom) could begin the naturalization process by filing second papers after only two years of residency in the US.23 My grandmother studied for the test from home while taking care of two young kids. She was so proud when
Image 5: else Pedersen Rhodes’ application for naturalization.
Image in the public domain.
she passed and became an American citizen and managed to get her picture in the local newspaper.
Image 6: Article from a local Texas newspaper in 1954 congratulating Else on attaining US citizenship.
Else’s first-hand accounts reveal that her experiences as a Danish woman in America were quite different depending on which American culture she entered. Texas was vastly different from Michigan. She easily made friends and loved the people of Michigan but struggled to connect to her neighbors in San Antonio. She loved the crisp cold climate in Michigan and hated the desert heat in Texas. Eventually, she had to go where Forest went, and he loved Texas, a devotion my grandmother respected but did not share. Regardless of where they lived, however, my grandmother spent many lonely hours by herself when Forest was working or deployed.
Homesickness was a war bride’s worst enemy. “I felt so sick in my heart that I thought I would have a heart attack so young,” said an Italian woman who went to Indian Gulch, Pennsylvania.24
In some respects, America was much more advanced than Denmark, and the country had not suffered nearly as much as other parts of Europe. European war brides frequently drew a stark contrast between the deprivation of their native countries and the abundance of their new homeland. In her letters, my grandmother often addresses this and describes the superiority of America compared to Denmark. However, all the conveniences in the world, such as a washing machine and flushing toilets, could not make up for the disappointments she encountered when trying to incorporate pieces of her native culture into her new life, with no encouragement from her new family.
Image 7: Two cards that Else sent home for Easter in 1951, in which she asks her mother to lay flowers on her sister Aase’s grave.
My grandmother struggled the most around holidays and birthdays. Early on, one of her biggest disappointments was how Americans celebrate Christmas eve. Else writes:
Men du godeste sikken en kedelig Jul, de forstaar overhovedet ikke at holde Jul. Det eneste der foregaar er, at Børnene aabner Gaverne, vi faar et Stykke Frugtkage, Juletræet bliver staaende i hjørnet og det er alt. De ved slet ikke hvad en skøn hvid dansk Jul er. Jeg spurgte Landy, om han vilde danse omkring Juletræet med mig, han gloede paa mig, som om jeg var aandsvag, saa det opgav vi altsaa. Men ellers havde vi det meget godt, men det var ikke, som om det var Jul. De stiller Juletræet op herovre 1-2 uger før Jul, de har elektrisk lys paa det, saa naar de naar Juleaften synes jeg Glansen er gaaet af det, synes I ikke ogsaa det? Jeg glæder mig til at høre om Julen derhjemme.
[My gosh what a boring Christmas, they have no sense of how to celebrate Christmas here. The only thing they do is that the children open their presents, we eat a slice of fruitcake, the Christmas tree stays in the corner, and that is all there is to it. They have no idea how wonderful a white Danish Christmas is. I asked Landy if he wanted to dance around the Christmas tree with me but he just stared at me as if I was crazy, so I gave up on that idea…. Apart from that we had an ok time, but it didn’t feel like Christmas…. here, they put up the Christmas tree 1-2 weeks before Christmas, they have electric lights on it, but then on Christmas day, there is nothing special about it, right? I am looking forward to hearing about your Christmas at home.]
Else’s account is a testament to the numerous tales from other war brides’ experiences about their new American families’ unwillingness to put themselves in the young women’s shoes and be forthcoming in asking about traditions or even wanting to try some of them.
Yet, things did seem to get better. In the Christmas card she sent from Michigan in 1951, Else reports on their new home with a sense of optimism:
Kære lille Moder, kære allesammen!
Vi er i Michigan nu og Dusty sidder her og drikker sin Morgenkaffe, sur som en Ligtorn. Vi tog med Flyvemaskine fra San Antonio i Søndags 10,55 og ankom i Detroit 6,28 den samme Dag. Vi har en dejlig Lejlighed på Størrelse med vort hus i San Antonio.
Lille Moder, jeg har modtaget Biblen, Julebøgerne og Maleriet og var vældigt glad for det alt sammen. Jun. har rigtig haft Sjov med Kalenderen og Bøgerne, de var dejlige Ting. Jeg har endnu ikke faaet Lagen og Pudevaar. Det har været en frygtelig Formiddag siden Dusty tog afsted, med Pakning og Flytning og tusind andre Ting. Vore Møbler kom i Gaar saa nu vil jeg faa travlt med at pakke ud og stille paa Plads. Jun. og vi er alle raske og Junior spiser vældig godt nu. Saa snart jeg faar Tid, vil jeg skrive et langt Brev.
[Dear Mother, dear everyone, we are now in Michigan and Dusty is sitting here drinking his morning coffee, as grumpy as a callus. We flew from San Antonio on Sunday at 10:55 and arrived in Detroit at 6:28 the same day. We have a lovely apartment about the same size as our house in San Antonio.
Little mother, I received the Bible, Christmas books, and the painting, and was delighted with all of it. Junior has really enjoyed the calendar and the books, which were lovely. I haven’t gotten sheets and pillowcases yet. It’s been a difficult morning since Dusty left, packing and moving and thousands of other things to do. Our furniture arrived yesterday, so now I’ll be busy with unpacking and putting things in place. We are all healthy and Junior is eating really well now. As soon as I have time, I’ll write you a long letter.]
Image 8: The Christmas card else sent home to Denmark in 1951.
Even though she lived in relative prosperity in the US, it was still
hard for my grandmother to leave her family behind and adjust to life in the United States. My grandmother often described how much she cried and noted that Forest didn’t know what to do when she did. It was extremely difficult for my grandmother to maintain her own identity, primarily because she was met with hostility from her mother-in-law and new family but also because she moved around so much that she never had a chance to settle down and combine her Danish roots with her American ones. In her book Good-bye, Piccadilly. British War Brides in America, Jenel Virden explains that this first stage of the process is termed “cultural assimilation,” which pertains to the outward signs of conforming to the dominant culture.25 Even as an old woman, my grandmother had nightmares about packing everything into moving boxes and suitcases. I can only imagine how hard it must have been to pack everything up, sometimes three times a year and how difficult that made the cultural assimilation.
My grandmother´s transition from Denmark to America was not a successful one. Although she fought hard to create a new life and make her marriage work, she didn´t succeed. In 1959, she returned to Copenhagen, with three children, no education, and no job. She moved in with her parents and felt quite defeated. The first thing she did, however, was to install a flushing toilet and a washing machine in her parents’ home.
She always spoke highly about America when we talked at the dinner table that was drapped in a tablecloth picturing the great state of Texas.
Just as she had never fully adjusted to her life in America, she never fully readjusted to life back in Copenhagen, where she lived in the same apartment for more than thirty years, hardly ever venturing outside the city of Copenhagen. She never again packed her belongings until my mom, and I helped her settle into a retirement home.
All war brides carry with them stories of hardship, love, and cultural shock, as Else Marie Pedersen Rhodes’s letters convey so vividly. My grandmother´s story might not be unique, but as a testament to how women had to overcome so many struggles to transition into American life, it is worth giving her, and through her, millions of other women, a voice.
- Gabrielle Ann Fortune, “‘Mr. Jones’ Wives’: World War II War Brides of New Zealand Servicemen” (unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Auckland, 2005), 62.
- elfrieda Berthiaume Shukert and Barbara Smith Scibetta, War Brides of World War II (Presidio Press, 1988), 230.
- Fortune, 62.
- Susan Zeiger, Entangling Alliances: Foreign War Brides and American Soldiers in the Twentieth Century (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 128.
- Shukert and Smith, 221.
- Jenel Virden, Good-bye, Piccadilly. British War Brides in America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996), 115.
- Virden, 106-107.
- Virden, 107.
- Red Cross pamphlet, 1948.
- Virden, 111.
- Virden, 128-129.
- Zeiger, 127.
- Zeiger, 138-138.
- Anna Claire Amundson, “Sentimental Journey?: The Immigrant experience of World War II-era War Brides in Montana” (unpublished Master’s thesis, University of Montana, 2009). Accessed May 19, 2022. https://scholarworks.umt.edu/etd/874
- Virden, 115-116.
- Virden, 118.
- Zeiger, 140.
- Zeiger, 128.
- Shukert and Scibetta, 233.
- Shukert and Scibetta, 230.
- Shukert and Scibetta, 229.
- Shukert and Scibetta, 232.
- Shukert and Scibetta, 243.
- Shukert and Scibetta, 237.
- Virden, 106.