Some 65 years ago, my husband immigrated to the United States. He arrived on the above-pictured transport ship, the USS General Hersey. The ship had been decommissioned by the Navy and used thereafter to transport refugees who could not or did not want to return to their native countries.
On usmm.org, there is an article written about the journey that my husband was on. He was 11 years old at the time and the ship made port in Boston. A quote from that article:
“Among them, the largest group consisted of 388 Poles, Next in number were 178 Lithuanians. The remainder was composed of 59 Czechs, 32 Latvians, 17 Ukrainians, 14 Estonians, 10 Yugoslavs, 10 Roumanians, 6 Hungarians, 16 Germans and 83 without country, all coming from lands whose people have long been known as hardworking and thrifty… Ranging in age from a seven-week-old infant-in-arms to a seventy-nine-year-old woman, with 63 orphans among their number….
It is amazing to me that he was one of 32 Latvians on that ship. His mother was another. They were sponsored by another Latvian who had already immigrated. My husband went directly to an orphanage because he could not speak English. He spoke Latvian and German and luckily one of the nuns at the orphanage spoke German and assisted him in learning English.
His mother worked off her passage on a farm nearby and, after a year, they made their way to Chicago. There my husband attended school for the first time. And he experienced prejudice for the first, but not the last, time. He was called a DP by teachers and students. He was treated as “not as good as” a natural-born American. He worked through the discrimination and became a US Citizen in 1957.
He had commenced his journey to America at the age of 2. He was placed in an orphanage because his father was dying from tuberculosis and he could not stay with his family. There is some question around whether or not the woman who later claimed him as her son was truly his mother. He does remember a lady coming to see him and bringing gifts, but it was not the woman who claimed she was his mother.
The orphanage picked up and left Latvia in 1943. The Germans were on their way to Latvia and the Russians – little better, if at all better – were arriving to fight them.
My husband has stories of being shot at and diving into fox holes, traveling by train, ship and by walking. The group ended up in Esslingen, Germany at some point shortly before the end of the war. He was 7. He remembers the huge home in which they stayed as a castle and he loved being there. They were on the Neckar River and the children were allowed to be outside and play whenever their duties were done.
When he was 9, the woman who claimed to be his mother found him through the Red Cross. As he has said many times, it would have been better to stay in the orphanage. My sentiments exactly, for this person never acted as if he were her child, let only her only son missing from her for 7 or more years. There was never a good explanation forthcoming as to why he was placed in the orphanage because by the time he was, his father was dead.
At any rate, he survived. He left home as soon as he could and he became a successful and hard-working electrical engineer.
We had a family connection that the two of us did not know about. My father, being 4F during WWII, went to Vancouver, WA to work in the shipyards of Kaiser Co. to rebuild the American fleet of ships decimated during Pearl Harbor. The ship that brought my husband to these shores was also built by Kaiser Co. I thought it would be beyond coincidence if Dad had worked on that ship. He didn’t, as the USS General Hersey was built elsewhere, but the connection remains.
With his early life as difficult as it was, I would have hoped that his later years would be years of ease. That was not to be, but at least he is here, he is in America and he is being taken care of well.