Sacramento woman who survived Blitz of London reuinites with friend decades later

07/02/2012 12:00 AM

01/11/2013 10:42 PM

Jo Gilpin was a young girl living in London when she and her schoolmates – including her best friend, Mary Mann – were evacuated to the English countryside for two years during World War II.

A month ago, during Gilpin's annual visit home to England, she reunited with Mary Mann Wells after more than 60 years apart.

"I wish to God I'd done this years ago," said Gilpin, now 84, a retired secretary who lives in Tahoe Park. "This year, I was bound and determined to make it happen."

For the two women, friends from age 9, there was no breaking point, only life pulling them in different directions until Gilpin's search of a British online directory service helped bring them back together.

When they were young, they lived in Hampstead, in the northwest corner of London, and attended Rhyl Street School before the war. They liked to roller-skate together in the street. Gilpin's father, Harry Stokes, sold insurance, and her mother, Dorothy Stokes, worked as a cook.

Then came the Blitz. Beginning in September 1940, Germany bombed London for 57 consecutive nights, killing 20,000 residents. Other cities across the country were targeted, as well. Frightened urban parents packed up 3 million British children and sent them to safety in small towns and rural areas.

Gilpin was 12 when the Blitz began.

"It must have been dreadful for the adults, never knowing from one day to the next whether they would be alive," she said. "For us, it was an adventure, really. We didn't realize the profundity.

"We didn't know where we were going when we were evacuated. Nobody knew. We were sent to Paddington Station with our school, and our train went west from there. Mary and I vowed that we would be billeted together, and we were."

For the next two years, they lived in a small town in Cornwall, schoolgirls taken in by a couple named Clarence and Sappho Luke. By late 1942, with the daily bombardment of London largely past, the girls returned home. They again attended school together, and Gilpin remembers long walks in Hampstead Heath with her friend, Mary.

But the Gilpins' home was damaged by a stray V-1 bomb that exploded nearby in the spring of 1944, and the family moved to a new residence.

By the late 1940s, the two girlhood friends had fallen out of touch. Gilpin married her first husband in 1947 and moved to Sacramento with him in 1954.

She thought about Mary through the many years that followed – but it wasn't until this spring, when she stumbled onto the British online people search site www.192.com, that she finally found her friend's address and telephone number.

"We reunite people all the time," said the site's spokesman, Alexander Clare, "but it's rare for us to have a reunion story from someone in the States."

A phone call and a few letters later, and Gilpin and her daughter, Robyn Virga, were standing at Mary Mann Wells' front door in a small town in Hertfordshire on a day in mid-May.

"The reunion was lovely," said Virga, 54. "It was very sweet to see them together. They hugged."

And then they all had tea and spent several hours catching up.

"I think Mary thought I was in England the whole time," said Gilpin. "She didn't even know I had moved away."

Because Wells has no Internet access, the friends stay in touch now the old-fashioned way, through letters.

Gilpin, an American citizen since the late 1950s, is planning another trip to England next year.

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