Footnotes in History

'War Brides' at the Pima Air and Space Museum offers wonderfully evocative glimpses of times past and loves lost

The Pima Air and Space Museum is a monument not only to aviation—with 300 planes on 80 acres, as its slogan has it—but to the tools of war.

Helicopters and planes that were used in the major conflicts of the 20th century dangle from the ceilings of the museum's half-dozen hangars. Nicknamed Buzz Bomb and Flying Fortress and Hawker Hurricane, the aircraft are lovingly displayed in a sprawling complex that lies, appropriately, just south of Davis-Monthan Air Force base. (Visitors can even take a shuttle ride to the nearby boneyard, the vast resting grounds of hundreds of decommissioned military planes and helicopters.)

Inside the museum's hangars, the shimmering engines and wings and gears and wheels and throttles are a mechanic's dream. One khaki-colored hulk is said to have been the first plane that could land on both land and water. Another plane, a beak-nosed sliver of a thing, is reported to have traveled from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., in just more than an hour.

This is not a place that examines the meaning or consequences of all that machinery and those feats; it simply exhibits the dazzling technology.

So it's a bit of a surprise to find a small show in a tiny corner in the distant Space Gallery hangar that does examine some of the human fallout from war. War Brides: One-Way Passage is a Canadian painter's look at the women who left home after World War II to settle in foreign lands with soldier-husbands they barely knew.

Haunting paintings of the young brides—based on their sepia-colored, now-faded wedding portraits—are painted on rough-hewn plywood. Just 1 foot wide and 4 feet tall, the planks reflect the hardy adaptations that were required of these young women.

The artist, Bev Tosh, painted some of the women in ghostly facial portraits, as disembodied heads. Others get a near full-body treatment, with glimpses of their frilly 1940s wedding dresses and veils, or, more bleakly, of their plain wartime suits.

But whether festive or frugal, the young women are joined together. Tosh has leaned the planks side by side against the wall. The brides are shoulder to shoulder, smiling in solidarity, and the 70 paintings in this bridal procession conjure up a huge crowd, a giant migration to the New World.

In fact, the numbers are big. Tosh recounts that some 48,000 war brides, mostly British and European, re-settled in Canada after the war. Today, one in 30 Canadians is related to a war bride. (A note added by the Pima Air and Space Museum calculates that some 100,000 arrived in the United States in the years after the war. A New York Times story from 1946 reports that some 66,000 war brides were expected to travel to the U.S. in that year alone.)

War by definition moves people around the globe, far from home, disrupting ordinary lives and forever altering life trajectories. Too often, the tales are tragic: Soldiers and civilians are killed or maimed; homes are demolished; livelihoods destroyed; families shattered. The narrative of the war brides and their soldiers is usually seen as a positive counterbalance to these grim outcomes, the triumph of love in the midst of unspeakable horror. Love even linked former enemies, when Allied soldiers fell in love with Germans.

Battered by years of bad news, the post-World War II public was fascinated by the prospect of warships turned into love boats that would bring young wives and babies to doting husbands and fathers in North America.

"The British superliner Queen Mary, which has been used as a troop ship, will be outfitted to carry brides and babies after the rush of troop movements has quieted down," the Times reported in January 1946. And 61 WACS—female troops with the Women's Army Corps—were setting sail for England "to serve on the return voyage as nursemaids to war-bride mothers coming to this country with their children."

Cary Grant even starred in a 1949 comedy, I Was a Male War Bride, playing the French husband of an American servicewoman, with predictably hilarious results.

Not surprisingly, the real-life story has its darker side. Young women who hardly knew their new husbands were abruptly transplanted into a different landscape, different families and different cultures. Some of them never saw their own parents again.

"We could have sailed to Canada on the tears we shed," one woman told Tosh.

As a group, these women were plucky and adventurous, but many suffered deeply in the war. Tosh painted a Dutchwoman, Nan, with a black tooth. A Nazi soldier, Nan reported, had kicked her in the face. Another Dutchwoman, Elly, made a wedding dress out of a U.S. military-issue blanket. There was simply nothing else to be had in stricken Europe. In her wedding portrait, reproduced by Tosh in paint, the smiling Elly makes the best of it. She wears a scarf instead of a veil, and that bulky coat instead of a gown, but she holds a white flower in her hand.

Some brides were already war widows by the time they arrived, grieving women who came to live with the grieving parents of the dead soldier all of them loved. An Englishwoman named Winnie moved to the Saskatchewan home of her late husband's parents, bringing her two little girls with her. On the first day, Tosh recounts, a siren sounded, and the children ran screaming into the house, terrified that the Nazis were attacking.

Tosh's own mother, Dorothy, met a New Zealand soldier at a dance in Saskatchewan and went out to the South Seas to make a new life with him. The marriage produced two daughters, but lasted just 10 years.

"After the war, she left the cold snow of Saskatchewan for the hot, black sand of New Zealand," Tosh writes in a catalog. "Each year, when the December temperatures were at their hottest, I would see tears on her cheeks when she heard Bing Crosby singing, 'I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas.'"

Her mother, she says, never speaks of those 10 years away. And Tosh herself suffered from the displacement. She was born in New Zealand but was brought to her mother's country after the divorce; she's lived in Canada ever since, but has always longed for the landscape of her childhood.

Dorothy was the first war-bride portrait Tosh painted. Not included in this traveling show, it was a large-scale portrait of a plucky young woman. The painting got some attention in the press, and soon, other war brides, now old women, were contacting the artist, wanting to tell their own stories. The project snowballed.

The full installation has been exhibited in various Canadian venues. Only one portion of it, the painted procession of brides, was brought to the Pima Air and Space Museum, but the local show does include a few period mementos, including a 1940s radio.

And there's a real wedding dress, a lovely silk worn by an Australian woman, Nea "Sunny" Woolard, when she married an American pilot in Memphis in 1946. The accompanying painted portrait shows the appropriately named Sunny in the dress on her wedding day; she raises one hand to her hair, tidying it before the ceremony. Blonde and smiling, she's radiant with expectation.

Sunny's storybook romance had a happy ending. She and her husband remained married until his death.

Tosh's project is intriguing, but it leaves a visitor longing for more. The exhibition can offer only a few anecdotes here and there. A full-length book would be required to tell all of the women's stories in the depth they deserve; let's hope Tosh is planning to write it.

But the paintings themselves are wonderfully evocative glimpses of times past and loves lost, of happy young women at the threshold of a new life. Tosh paints them with a fluid brush, and her subdued palette suggests the distant past.

Many of these women are now dead, footnotes in the history of a war more often remembered through battles—and planes. Tosh easily met her goal of restoring them to history, of "shin(ing) a spotlight on ordinary women in extraordinary times."

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