From Chatteris to San Diego - the romance which started in the Second World War

09:44 15 June 2012

Merl and May Vanderheyden

Merl and May Vanderheyden

Archant

MAY Dunham was the only girl from Chatteris to marry an American soldier during the Second World War – and 67 years later her daughter has shared tales about their whirlwind courtship.

May married Sgt Merl Vanderheyden at St Peter and St Paul’s Church, Chatteris, on Valentine’s Day 1945, a year after they met outside a Cambridgeshire pub.

In a letter to this newspaper the couple’s daughter, Marla Freund, said: “May was the only girl from her town to marry an American soldier.”

Sgt Vanderheyden arrived in England in 1943 and was stationed at Brampton with the 1st Bomb Wing Headquarters of the 8th Air Force. A year later he met May outside a pub in St Ives.

Marla said: “While they were courting, he rode his bicycle to the closest railway station, loaded his bike on the train and when he arrived in Chatteris railway station hopped on his bike to May’s house.

“If any of his visits to Chatteris ended late in the evening, Merl would sleep at the local police station (May’s mum wouldn’t have a Yankee sleeping at her house!) in exchange for cigarettes that the policemen were always grateful for.”

The couple set a wedding date for autumn 1944, but this was put back to February 1945 after May’s mother decided more time was needed to make the wedding “perfect”.

The church was filled with army uniforms for the wedding. Marla said: “The only vehicles outside the church that day were army jeeps and trucks, since nobody else in the town owned cars at the time.”

After a honeymoon in Torquay May continued to live with her parents in Chatteris, snatching weekends with her husband when she could before he was shipped back to America in November 1945.

May finally left England for America on March 19, 1946, aboard the USS Washington. She arrived in New York before boarding a train to San Diego where Merl and his family were waiting.

They settled in Chula Vista, near San Diego, in a house kitted out by the Vanderheydens.

Marla said: “May was overwhelmed by the reception she received and felt their love immediately. In fact, her father-in-law would take her so much fresh fruit and other foods she hadn’t had for years that she became sick and had to go to the hospital the first month after she arrived.”

The couple, now in their 90s, have two children, Marla and Mark. They also have four grandchildren, seven great grandchildren and three great great grandchildren.

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