Freeport, Illinios, is a small country town close to the Mississippi and not far from Route 66. It is where the prairies end and the country side starts to roll, very much like Devonshire. Apart from farming, there is a large insurance interest in the town with many of the worlds main companies having office blocks.
I was born in Freeport in 1925, my parents had emigrated to America from East Prussia ( now part of Poland) just a few years before.
In 1941, America entered the Second World War. I was 17 years old working in the building industry, a job without a lot of prospects, so I volunteered to join the US Navy to fight Germany. After a short period of training at a base near Chicago we were drafted to England. We had a train journey of about 40 hours to the Atlantic coast, this was the first time I had ever seen the sea, I saw plenty of it in the next 9 days as the ship sailed in convoy to somewhere near Glasgow.
We left the ship and went into a transit camp for a few days before coming by train to Exeter, I don’t remember which month it was, I do recall it seemed to be raining all the time
We were told that they were going to Exeter to a new camp specially built for us, but on our arrival we found a muddy site with tents, our officers told us we could have huts to live in , when we built them!!. The camp was beside the Golf Club at Countess Wear.
We worked hard building the base and were allowed time off in the evening, we went into the town and saw where all the bombing had happened. I suppose that I realised for the first time, how you had suffered in the war, until then the war was distant to us in America. The black out was something new to us all, we had been used to seeing where we were going!!
We tried the beer which was very different from the stuff at home which is always served very cold, In those days I don’t think anyone in Exeter had a fridge. Although we were well fed at the base, we always had a bag of fish and chips which were wrapped in newspaper, to eat as we walked home at the end of an evening out. We had been told that fish and chips, was all the English ate!
We young sailors were invited to dances in village halls all over the area. In 1943, I was invited to a dance in Kenton Victory Hall, with a few of my mates went out there. There was one very pretty girl who caught my eye, so I asked her to dance, she was Avril Martin, a 16 year old, who lived in Wonford Street. She worked for Chudleys the printers in Holloway Street (at some point in the war they were bombed out and moved to Matfield House, on the By Pass by the Devon Motel)
Well a romance blossomed, and I was invited to go round and meet her parents.
Until then, I had been cocooned, I had no idea how hard times were for the average family in England. We had everything at the base, but Avril and her family did not even have enough food. With the help of Uncle Sam, I tried to make life a little easier in Wonford Street. I managed to smuggle out a few luxuries, jam, chocolate, cookies, and the like.
When the Normandy landings started, I was a driver taking supplies to various ports for loading on to the ships going to the beaches, I took many loads down to Brixham.
It was obvious that the war was coming to an end at the beginning of 1945, so Avril and I had to decide on our future, I proposed marriage and that we should settle in Freeport.
We married at Heavitree Parish church on 7th April 1945, we had our reception at the Conservative Club in Heavitree, the catering was done by Palmer and Edwards. After the reception we went to Bournemouth and stayed in a small hotel. I remember that Avril had to take her ration book to the hotel so that she could be fed. I don’t recall how they managed to feed me!
When we got back to Exeter the war in Europe was over and there were large scale movements from the base at Countess Wear, many of the enlisted men were sent back to the USA very quickly, I was in no great rush so I did my best to stay in Exeter but it was only a few weeks before I was sent to another transit camp to await a ship home.
Avril went back to work to await the arrangements for her to emigrate to America. And it was in the fall of 1945 that she got her “marching orders”. She went by train to Andover, to an American camp full of English girls who had married US Service men. After two or three days of form filling, physicals, and the like, they were taken to Southampton and put aboard the Queen Mary to sail to New York.
In the meantime I had been demobilised and was at home in Freeport, I had notification of the day that Avril would arrive by train in Freeport, but they could not tell me which train she would be on. As I said, Freeport is on the prairies right in the middle of America, we had three trains a day from Chicago going West, so I had to go and meet them all.
The arrangements for all the G I Brides were organised by the American Red Cross, who took the girls off the ship and onto the trains, for the two day journey.
Eventually she arrived safely to start life in the Mid West, we started out in rented rooms, before buying some land and building our own house. I continued in the building business eventually becoming accommodation manager for a large insurance company. We have one daughter, five grandchildren, and 13 great grand children.
We have come back to Exeter several times over the years; we were there for our Golden and Diamond wedding anniversaries.
© 2008 Bill and Avril Witt
The story of the wartime romance and wedding of Bill and Avril Witt, of Freeport, Illinois.
Bill Witt in his US Navy uniformWedding day at Heavitree Church
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