About this blog

As the author of this blog, Karen L Garner Martin Messick, I am the daughter of an American soldier, Wilbur (Bill) C. Garner, Sr. and Women's Royal English Navy service woman (British Wren) Gwendoline Rosa Wilkins, who met and married during World War II. They lived and loved for over 50 years before Mother passed in 2000. When she did I helped Dad with every day chores when I could. One day I was helping him clear things out and I lifted a plastic bag out of the seat of Mom's piano stool, asking Dad, "Whats in this bag?" to which he replied, "Just some of Mary's old letters." Mary, his older sister, was still alive at the time, residing in an assisted living facility, suffering from Alzheimer's disease. I put the letters back in the piano seat thinking he did not want me to open the letters.
When Dad passed two years later, I inherited Mary's letters.
When I began to read them, I found they were mostly letters from Dad to Mary while he was in World War II ("The War"). I could not put them down. I wished I had opened them the day I first saw them so that Dad and I could have had conversations about them, but that was not to be...so as I read through these "Letters to Mary" I began to get a glimpse into Dad's young years when he met Mom and his time as a soldier. I have researched events during World War II to enhance my understanding of what was happening in the war as each letter came to broaden my understanding of what he might have been experiencing. I knew he landed on the beaches of Normandy, France D-Day plus 1 as he recounted his memory of that day to me when he was dying from Leukemia. It was horrifying. There were also letters from a companion Mary had met while in Minneapolis, he had been deployed overseas. I have entwined them chronologically with Dad's letters as it gives a greater dimension to the war itself. I intend to editorialize as necessary to explain personal relationships and situations as the story unfolds through the "Letters to Mary." I welcome any questions, comments and feedback. As the "Greatest Generation" fades away, I felt compelled to share these letters and story in hopes of continuing the legacy they left for the world. Let us never forget the untold years and lives that were sacrificed for freedom!
If you have stumbled upon this blog I have added a blog archive at the bottom of the blog page. Continue to scroll down to access the Blog Archive. The posts are chronologically listed and to follow the story it is best to start with the first post in December 2013.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Back Story....Gwendoline Rosa Wilkins

This blog post content continues to fill in the gap in years between 1930 and 1943 when there are no "Letters to Mary" and  the "Back Story" of the people who wrote "Letters to Mary."
Gwendoline Rosa Wilkins Circa 1927
Gwendoline's (Gwen, Mom) story starts in England. Born an only child to Kate Hudman Wilkins, 26 years of age and William Ewart Wilkins, 27 years of age, on October 14, 1923 at the home of her paternal grandmother, Mrs. William Joseph Wilkins, 2 Trinity Place, Newport, Monmouthshire, UK. At the age of two her parents moved to 55 Marion Street, Splott, Cardiff, Wales when William became a member of the police force for the Great Western Railway. 

She attended Splottland's Girls' School. 
She wrote her memoir in February 1999 and the story that appears below is constructed from excerpts of her memoir.

 "Growing up as a child in Great Britain was, for me, a rather orderly and peaceful existence. Days of summer fun were eagerly anticipated as holiday trips were planned to many lovely beaches, holiday camps, the breathtakingly beautiful Midlands counties of Oxford, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Wiltshire and Berkshire ---- to absorb the beauty of the country-side, to become entranced by the the majesty of the centuries-old abbeys, castles, cathedrals and many other places of interest. 
Gwendoline R. Wilkins  (bottom row 4th from left, and her mother holding the umbrella)
"On Holiday" Weymouth, Dorsetshire, July 1931
At age 7 my parents decided that it was time for me to take instruction in learning how to play the piano and so my music lessons began. I passed my first London College of Music exam in 1932, but did not seriously continue my studies after my bout of diphtheria. 

During my last year in school at age 14, I took courses in Shorthand, English and Commercial Practice and Arithmetic and Accounts at the Junior Evening Institute classes at Cardiff Technical College.

In July 1938, while continuing my studies at Cardiff Tech at night, I entered the world of business by becoming an all-encompassing Girl Friday to Mr. Saunders of the Marcliff Sectional Building Company. 
In December 1938 I started work at the South Wales Power Company at the fabulous salary of 10 shillings a week. 

1938 was also the year for yet one more family move --- this time from Habershon Street to "Llwyd Coed" 8 Tyr-y-Sarn Road, Rumney Village. For just a short while the days and months at Rumney were idyllic, but the drums of war were already beginning to sound in Nazi Germany and in September 1939, World War II was thrust upon us. 

The wailing of air-raid sirens soon became an everyday occurrence and upon hearing them, the office staff would head for the underground air-raid shelters on the company grounds, there to stay for sometimes up to three hours before the "All Clear" was sounded. 

I remember on many an occasion going up to the attic on Tyr-y-Sarn Road, on a moonlit night, poking my head through the skylight and watching the path of the Nazi bombers as they followed the silver ribbon of the River Severn on up into the heart of England to drop their load of death and destruction upon some peaceful sleepy village, a university town, or a city in a busy industrial center. 

The South Wales Electric Power Company was in the process of building new offices in another small village called St. Mellons - not too far from Rumney - and to prevent the British Government from commandeering the building for use of army troops, the staff had to move into the building just as winter was approaching even though many windows had not been installed and the heating system was inoperative! We all worked while still wearing heavy coats and most of the typists had to wear gloves to keep their hands warm. 
The Power Company Office of St. Mellons ( Gwendoline back row third from left)
During those years, my employment at the Power Company was classified as "National Service" and I was exempt from Land Army drafts or call-up of women for the Auxiliary Territorial Services or the Women's Auxiliary Air Force units. However, I felt the urge to do something more than work behind my desk at the Power Company and volunteered my services, part-time, to train young people who eventually wanted to go into one of the services.  

I became an officer in the Women's Junior Air Corps and was in charge of several groups of teenagers who met three times a week at the local school, receiving instruction in drill routine, the sending of Morse code messages, understanding flag language, etc. We also camped out on week-ends and even though there was war going on we managed to have a lot of fun. As Adjutant to the Regional Commandant, I had the honour of welcoming Viscountess Leverhulme to the City of Cardiff when she made a visit to inspect the numerous units of the Womens Junior Air Corps. 
Gwen in uniform standing next to the Commandant during inspection.
As the war rolled on, the need for woman power was becoming desperate and rather than be conscripted for service in the Army or Air Force, I volunteered for duty in the Women's Naval Service --- my ultimate desire to become a career women's naval officer.  My dad was very much against my decision, but knowing how much I had my heart set on wearing the navy blue uniform, my mother somehow persuaded him to give his consent. And so, on May 19, 1943, I arrived on board the Moorefield Training Depot in Plymouth, Devonshire, England, for a period of two weeks training.

I was extremely lucky to have been assigned to Bath, Somerset, England, on June 2, 1943, for that very evening, during a bombing raid on the city of Plymouth, the building where I had been quartered during training received a direct hit and was completely demolished ---all inside at that time perishing. "
Gwendoline R. Wilkins in her Navy Blues

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