GEORGETOWN — Following the conclusion of World War II, the US military put Operation Magic Carpet into action, using more than 370 Navy ships, destroyers, and passenger boats to bring soldiers home from war.
For many of those soldiers, they weren’t returning home alone.
Just before the new year in December 1945, the US Congress passed a bill that was signed into law which was commonly called the War Bride’s Act of 1945, and it allowed foreigners who married soldiers while they were stationed abroad an expedited process to become US citizens.
According to multiple reports, as many as 70,000 British brides made the move to America to reunite with their new husbands in a new land. Many of the women traveled on the Queen Mary, a luxury liner that was in some ways similar to the infamous ship, the Titanic, featuring indoor pools, ballrooms, and enough room for around 3,000 people on board, split between guests and the crew.
The women dispersed all across America, including here in Brown County, where Elsie Cropper and Vivienne Van Harlingen settled down.
Cropper, 91, is a native of Stockport, England, near Manchester, while Van Harlingen, 92, is a native of Cardigan in Wales.
Cropper is the mother of Georgetown High School varsity girls basketball head coach Bernie Cropper, while Van Harlingen is the mother of Brown County Prosecuting Office Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Chris Van Harlingen and Georgetown Police Department officer Vicky Coburn.
Although the pair didn’t know each other at the time, they both took the Queen Mary to New York in April 1946, ready to start their new lives in Ohio.
“It was wonderful, because we never had any food (in Stockport),” Elsie Cropper said. We got one egg a month and my mother would cut it in half and give my sister half and myself half. But the food on the Queen Mary was wonderful.”
“A couple of days we had storms and we put ropes out where you’d hold on to them. It was a large liner but it would still sway.”
Both Cropper and Vivienne Van Harlingen were just teenagers when they met their future husbands, American soldiers, who were stationed in their hometowns.
“There were three of us, three girls and three (American) men, and we were in this ice cream store. When we got to the counter, we got the last of the ice cream (because of war rationing),” Cropper said with a laugh.
As the girls walked home, the American soldiers followed, and soon the three girls and three soldiers got to talking. Cropper, who was turning 18-years old at the time, asked her mother if the Americans could come in and enjoy the ice cream, to which her mother agreed.
“We put music on the big old gramophone and we danced around the living room,” Cropper said. “Joe asked ‘will I see you again’ and he said he could come on Wednesday and I said ‘that’s all right’. I told my mom ‘he would never find this place’ but he did, he came Wednesday and that started the whole thing.”
Meanwhile, Van Harlingen says she and her husband dated for 11 months before Ralph Van Harlingen showed up at her door.
“My landlady came up and she said ‘there’s an American downstairs who wants to see you,” Van Harlingen said. “Lo and behold it was my husband to be.”
Van Harlingen said that they were married in Birmingham, England just one day after he proposed at her rental home.
Cropper turned 15-years old on Sept. 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland. Three days later, the United Kingdom and France declared war against Germany, and World War II was effectively underway.
Suddenly, all able-bodied men were needed for the war effort, and Stockport’s many hat-making factories all closed while the numerous employees went out to the front lines. Both of Cropper’s parents worked as hat makers. Cropper herself dropped out of school to help support her family, working in a box making factory and then another factory that made overalls for children.
During the war, Cropper lived through the blitz, in which German war planes flew over England and dropped bombs all over the country. The British government gave every resident bomb shelters to install in their backyards, and Cropper recalled running back and forth between her house regularly as bombs fell in the middle of the night. One night, the air raid sirens didn’t stop from 6:30 p.m. until 6:30 a.m. the next morning.
“We thought it was never going to be over,” Cropper said.
After dating Joseph Cropper for a couple of years, the pair were married on Nov. 11, 1944 at Our Lady and the Apostles church in Stockport. Following the end of the war Joseph Cropper returned home first before Elsie Cropper followed, leaving behind her mother Eleanor, father Harry, and sister Florence for Ohio.
As a teenager, Van Harlingen had her mind set on being a nurse. But in an interview on the Isle of White for a nurses apprenticeship, she lied to her boss and said she was 16-years old even though she was 15-years old, and received the apprenticeship she desperately wanted.
Van Harlingen worked as a nurses aide for a year and a half.
After marrying her husband, Van Harlingen sent him off back to New York while she waited for her approval to make the same journey. Finally she was approved to take the Queen Mary across the Atlantic Ocean.
“They had dancing, and swimming, and I swam on the ship,” Van Harlingen said.
Following her arrival in New York, Van Harlingen was supposed to meet up with her husband in Cincinnati. But when she arrived, Ralph Van Harlingen was no where to be found, and in a time without cell phones, Vivienne Van Harlingen had no way of knowing where he was.
Luckily for her, the Red Cross helped connect the two.
“The Red Cross had sent him to Maysville, Ky.,” Van Harlingen said. “I hung around until he came, and he had a nice new Oldsmobile, and he had booked a hotel in Maysville for one whole week, and we could spend our honeymoon there. It was good.”
Van Harlingen, who says she’s a born-again Christian, said that when she found out there was another war bride in Brown County, she went over to introduce herself to Cropper, igniting a friendship that remains to this day.