RETURNING TO AMERICA 1945
September 13, 1945. An important day for my mother and I, but also for many other Americans who had been caught in the clutches of war through no fault of their own. Many households were preparing that day for their journey to freedom. For that is what this trip was. We were going back to America, back to our home where we would be free from fear, free from hunger, free to do whatever, and go wherever we pleased. Yes, this was an important day. Mother and I were ready. We only had two suitcases with us since we didn’t have that much in the way of clothes. We heard the taxi honking its horn and the three of us were out the door and in the taxi on our way to the port of Piraeus.
The first few days on the ship were spent getting used to our surroundings, finding our way around the ship, and making new acquaintances. We made a stop in Naples, Italy, and picked up more Americans there. As we traveled through the Strait of Messina during the night, it seemed like the ship was at a standstill. I mentioned it to our steward and was shocked at his reply. The steward explained that indeed we were at a near standstill. This area was full of mines and the ship had to wait for daylight then proceed very carefully. I stood there with the steward and we watched the progress until the ship cleared the minefield. The trip lasted twenty-four days. We stopped at many ports, staying a day or two in each, but weren’t permitted to go ashore. We encountered some bad weather, making the passengers seasick. A few of the other young people and I tried to entertain people, hoping they might forget how sick they were. At night, when I was alone, away from the crowd, in the shadow of the moonlight, I thought of Lenny, and missed him.
On October 9, 1945, we sailed into New York harbor. There was a hush on the deck as we caught sight of the Statue of Liberty. There were tears in the eyes of most people on the ship upon seeing Lady Liberty. I remember seeing my father standing on the dock, waiting for us to disembark—dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief--and Father Manuel, my brother, standing beside him, one arm across his father’s shoulder, the other waving briskly in the air trying to get our attention. Then on the trip back home to Weirton, looking out the window of the train, seeing the country roll by, the thought of seeing my brother Nick and his family excited me and filled me with anticipation. Those were the good memories – American memories.
But tucked somewhere in my subconscious were the memories of the nightmares that lasted for years after my return. I had never spoken to anyone about them, except my mother. They had become an embarrassment to me. Here I was, a twenty-year-old woman needing her mother’s company to be able to go to sleep. But the nightmares were so real and so frightening. I would wake up with my entire body trembling and my hands clenched tightly in a fist. That need to touch somebody, to feel the presence of another person, was so great that I would go to my parents’ bed, wake my mother up and ask her to come sleep with me. Just being able to touch her and feel her presence made me safe again, and I was able to go back to sleep.
Those nightmares intruded into my sleep even long after I was married, when I would still find myself waking up many times in the middle of the night with the fear of the past gripping at my soul. I would sleep close to my husband and take his hand in mine and, feeling safe again, would go back to sleep. I had been apprehensive about making the trip back from Greece, but now I realized this was a pilgrimage and I was glad that I was free to build a new life and start a family with my husband, once again in my home - the land of the free - America.
* Adapted from Six Years to Freedom ©, unpublished manuscript by Angeline Spillias, 1992; ©Kenneth Spillias, 2017, 2019, 2022.