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War Brides: Finnegans Begin Again After WWII

By HEATHER POHLABEL
Daily Globe Staff Reporter

SHELBY - On January 5, 1946, Lillie Mae Reeve, a 20-year-old English beauty, wed handsome American Army Airman Corporal Gordon Finnegan in a small Catholic church in Suffolk, England after a highly romantic and whirlwind courting.

After meeting at a USO dance at a local hall, Gordon was persistent in his pursuit of the lovely lass and Lillie gave in and went on a date with him after he waited and came calling two weeks later. The two fell quickly in love and planned for a Christmas wedding.

Gordon was a strict Catholic, which Lillie did not know when started dating. "He told me whoever he married had to be Catholic and there were two things they believed in. You don't get divorced and you don't use contraception," Lillie recalled. The promise to honor Gordon's request and convert and marry was one Lillie did not take lightly. She went through 'instructions' by herself for months while Gordon was in Germany and she impatiently awaited his return.

Lillie's conversion to Catholicism wasn't the only requirement the pair would have to fulfill in order to marry. Gordon had to get permission from his commanding officer to wed in a foreign country, which he did, and they had to go through the Bishop. "You had to be trustworthy in what you said you were going to do (by marrying)," Lillie explained.

Christmas drew near and day by day, no Gordon, and Lillie became nervous. "On Christmas Eve, I went to church, and he had not come back yet, and I didn't even get out of the pew to take communion. I was not a happy camper," Lillie said. "The 29th of December he came back and we got married January 5th."

However, there was just one more technicality the pair had to deal with in order to marry. "The official religion of England is Anglican, The Church of England, so with getting married in a Catholic church, it was not recognized legally. We had to make arrangements to have the registrar in the church to witness our wedding and we had to sign in front of the registrar to make our wedding legal," Lillie explained.

Gordon then went back to Germany with the Army of Occupation. Gordon invited Lillie and their first child, Michael, to come and live on base in Germany, but Lillie did not want to go. "There were bad feelings. No way could I feel good about being there," Lillie emotionally recalled.

Prior to the war, Lillie was a stellar student, attending school at Felixstowe in Suffolk on a scholarship. She was 14 years old when the war began, and at age 15, her school was closed due to the war, and Lillie took a job up the road from her home. She was beautifully situated near the Stour River, which still holds many fond memories for her. However, during the war, the threat of invasion by the Germans was real, and the river turned from a childhood livelihood to a German barrier. Stakes were placed in the water, making it dangerous for boats and swimming. Engineers guarded bridges, ready to destroy them at the first threat of German occupation.

British households had to abide by blackouts. Air raid wardens who would visit homes to ensure lights were out. Germans bombed London and tried unsuccessfully to occupy England. "Those doodlebugs had been flying overhead where we lived and when they cut out, they'd drop wherever they cut," Lillie remembered. "The Germans were terrorists. They were not very savvy about tides and we had floating mines all the way around our island and minesweepers used to go out in front of the fishing trollers and sometimes the sailors would come back, they'd seen ships blow up." Because of these memories, Lillie would not go to Germany to live.

The Finnegan's first child, Michael, was born in England. Lillie recalled the hardship of labor and raising a baby without his father. Lillie would not see her husband again until their child was 10 months old, after the ship Lillie and Michael traveled on with hundreds of other GI Brides and babies, the Edmund B. Alexander, arrived in New York Harbor.

The boat ride was very stressful for Mrs. Finnegan and Michael. "It was two weeks on the ocean. Ten days out, Michael got sea sick. I thought it was the food, but it might have been my anxiety," Lillie explained. "I was getting worried that we hadn't landed yet. I didn't know what I was getting into. I didn't know anyone and the trip seemed to be taking too long."

After exiting the ship, Lillie found her husband standing there waiting to claim her and their son. "He was standing kind of stiff...someone had picked his pocket. He had been in New York three days waiting, and someone had picked his pocket in that time. There he is standing to bring us into America, and he hasn't got any money," Lillie remembered.

Michael had to be checked into the hospital shortly after arrival for two days. After he was released, the Finnegan family boarded a train headed for Crestline, and Gordon, Lillie, and Michael would join Thomas and Helen Finnegan on Kemp Road in Bethlehem.

Farm life was new for Lillie. She was used to walking to town or having taxis readily available. She had no driver's license, and was surrounded by trees and fields, not oceans and rivers as she was in England. Everything was new – her new family, her new religion and church, her surroundings, and the food. She never really cooked in England, but "Cookie" would become her common name in the home and amongst family and friends.

Her new family would build the couple a small home on the family's property in 1948, and by this time, the Finnegans had two children, Michael and Steve. "They were good to me," Lillie said regarding her new family. "I had everything new in that house, and it didn't take long to fill a table that set ten."

The Finnegans would have seven children in nine years: Michael, Steve, Chris, Joyce, David, Blane, and Carleen. That would extend to 27 grandchildren and many great grandchildren. Gordon passed away in 2006. Lillie still enjoys the Finnegan family farm at age 89. She has only returned to England once since she joined her husband in America in 1947.

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