The threat of war was not a major consideration for my grandmother, Rhoda Thomas, when she visited relatives and friends in her native England during the summer of 1939. Although German Chancellor Adolf Hitler was making territorial demands on Poland, few people thought the situation would lead to war.
Born in 1885, Rhoda had grown up in the little town of Street near Glastonbury in southwest England. She had met and married her husband, Frank Thomas, in Street and the couple had a son and a daughter before immigrating to the United States in 1914. Two more children were born in the U.S., where Rhoda and Frank became naturalized citizens in 1922. In the years that followed, Rhoda devoted herself to her husband, children, and grandchildren, and even in the most difficult days of the Great Depression she never lost her sense of humor or her trust in God,.
After her youngest daughter married in 1939, Rhoda left at the end of July for a two-month visit to Street. If she felt any hesitation boarding the ship in New York Harbor, it was because Frank, who worked for the State of New York Employment Office, could not accompany her.
Her brother, Albert Fisher, met Rhoda in Southampton and drove her back to Street. For a month, Rhoda enjoyed days “filled with activities of pleasures of all descriptions, such as trips here and there, shopping, teas, days at the seaside, rides in the country, visiting old friends, renewing old acquaintances.” But on August 24th a news bulletin from Moscow cast a pall over all of Great Britain. While the British and French had sent a delegation to Moscow to negotiate a military alliance with Russia, Germany and Russia were meeting in secret. On the 24th the two countries announced they signed a non-aggression pact in which they agreed not to go to war with each other or to aid an enemy of the other country.
That evening the radio carried news that the U.S. Embassy warned all American citizens in Britain to leave for home immediately due to the threat of war. Rhoda contacted the Cunard Steamship Line, with whom she held her return ticket, and the company arranged passage on the liner Athenia, leaving from Liverpool Saturday, Sept. 2. She made plans to take the train Friday, Sept. 1, from nearby Bournemouth to Liverpool. However, on Thursday evening prior to her departure, the government announced that school children in large cities and factory towns would be evacuated to the country beginning the next morning. Most of the movement would be by train and the public was asked to avoid train travel during the evacuation hours.
Rhoda scrambled to find other transportation for Friday and was able to hire a car from the local garage and a young man to drive her to Liverpool overnight Friday, arriving early Saturday in time to board the ship. Friday brought a new complication when she received word that her young driver was no longer available to take her to Liverpool because he had been called up for military service. But there was a ray of good news. The garage owner determined that the express train to Liverpool was still running and that Rhoda could catch it at a station only thirteen miles away.
She caught the train with only minutes to spare. As Rhoda settled into her seat, no doubt relieved that the haphazard portion of her return trip was behind her, she could not have imagined the obstacles fate had in store for her in the days to follow. More about that in Part 2.