On the 23rd of June Royal Navy D-Day veteran John Dennett, his great-nephew Tony and D-Day Revisited Secretary Victoria Phipps boarded the Queen Mary 2 at Southampton and began their transatlantic voyage to the Big Apple.
Retracing the same route he took 77 years earlier when he travelled to Halifax on RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 in December 1942 would be an emotional experience for John, but he took it all in his stride commenting that the food had definitely improved!
Throughout the 8 day crossing the three attended various lectures and concerts, walked around the deck promenade countless times, found time to read and made the most of the endless supply of delicious food. They met for breakfast and dinner each day at the Britannia restaurant where they were soon on first name terms with the waiters and sommeliers, who delivered excellent service and made the whole experience a real pleasure. Afternoon tea in the Queens Room was a real treat and one Gala evening they got all dressed up for a pre-dinner drinks reception with Captain Christopher Wells.
John was introduced to the Captain who was interested to hear his story and later offered the three guests a complimentary dinner and bottle of wine at The Verandah Restaurant, which they enjoyed on their final evening.
For 4 days of the crossing the QM2 moved steadily west through a dense sea mist, but as the ship neared the east coast of America the fog lifted and passengers enjoyed the most beautiful sunset.
John, Tony and Victoria were all keenly aware of the great tradition of this iconic method of crossing the vast Atlantic Ocean. For John making this voyage for the second time was particularly poignant. He reflected on his own feelings when he made the crossing aged 18 at the peak of the Battle of the Atlantic. In 1942 the U-boat threat was real; convoys were being attacked and ships sunk on a daily basis. He commented on the natural innocence of youth saying: “You just never thought it would happen to you.” Luckily for John, his first crossing on the QE2 was as uneventful as his second on the QM2 77 years later.
At dawn on the morning of the 30th of June, the Queen Mary 2 arrived in New York. The sky was completely clear and watching the sun rise behind the iconic Manhattan sky scrapers was a truly unforgettable experience.
After a final hearty breakfast on board the QM2, the three disembarked and headed to Brooklyn to collect their hire car. From there they began their journey to New Jersey; over the iconic Brooklyn Bridge and across lower Manhattan. John’s eyes were wide as he soaked in all the sights and sounds of the busy New York streets… a lot had changed in 77 years!
Later that day John, Tony and Victoria checked into the Berkeley hotel. This was one of two hotels which became “HMS Asbury” during the Second World War. The second was the Monterey which had been situated directly behind the Berkeley until it was torn down on the 22nd of November 1963, the same day JFK was assassinated. John was one of thousands of Royal Navy seamen who passed through HMS Asbury on their way to Philadelphia Shipyard, where they would collect a vessel to take back across the Atlantic and join the fight in Europe.
John was stationed in Asbury Park during the winter of 1942/43 and remembered a beachfront boardwalk which is still there today… although inevitably more attractive in the summer time! The beautiful Convention Hall and Paramount Theatre were still there and the seaside was buzzing with locals and tourists enjoying the shops, bars and restaurants which lined the boardwalk. John was not impressed at the price of beach passes and felt sure access to the beach was free in 1942!
On their way back to the hotel John sampled his first giant slice of “pizza pie”. Another traditional american gastronomic must ticked off the list!
During the transatlantic crossing Victoria had made contact with historian and Senior Press Officer at Newark City Hall, David Lippman. He was very interested in John’s story and made some enquiries about the Woodhall family to see whether any relatives still lived in the State of New Jersey. He discovered the address of the family at the time: 11 Berkeley Avenue, Belleville, which was a suburb of Newark. According to the 1940 US census the Woodhalls had two children, which is just as John remembered. Barbara Woodhall was born 1926 and Bert Jnr. two years later in 1928.
John remembered Bert Jnr. had volunteered to join the US Navy and being of a similar age the two had got on well together. David discovered that after the war Bert Jr. settled in Hawthorne, Nevada, where he sadly died in 2008. Barbara married William Lloyd Garrison Kent in 1947 and had a daughter and two grandchildren. Sadly she died in 1999 in Toms River, New Jersey.
John admits whilst he knew it was unlikely, he had hoped one of them might still be alive. Inevitably he was disappointed not to have the opportunity to thank the family in some way for their kindness. Victoria suggested they drive up to Newark to try to find the street where the Woodhalls lived all those years ago and so (after a huge stack of pancakes to set them up for the day!) they set off in the car for Belleville.
A couple of hours later John was standing on the street he visited so many times 77 years earlier to visit his “home from home”. Frustratingly, number 11 was the only house on Berkeley Avenue which had since been demolished. However since all the houses were of a very similar style, John was able to stand in the spot and have a very good idea of what the house will have been like. He recalled spending time in the basement where he, Bert Snr. and Bert Jnr. would practice shooting. He remembered the family inviting him to go along with them to Church on Sunday. And he remembered the mouth-watering supply of food on Christmas day!
The three wanted to visit David Lippman and thank him for all his efforts to trace the Woodhall family, so the next stop was Newark City Hall.
David was very pleased to welcome John and learn more about his wartime story. They spent an hour or so at City Hall and John was pleased to give David a few autographs in his favourite history books. David shared some of his extensive knowledge of 20th century history of Newark and New Jersey. Having spent a few days there it was interesting for John, Tony and Victoria to learn a little more about the state.
The three headed back to Asbury Park and spent a fun evening on the boardwalk enjoying live music with a tipple or two, chatting with locals and reflecting on the trip so far.
The following day was their last full day in New Jersey and unsure of how best to spend the time, Victoria suggested they get back in the car and drive to Philadelphia. Although it was no longer the active US Navy Shipyard it had been during the Second World War, her research suggested the site would be accessible to the public as much of it had been developed into a business park. John hadn’t thought this was a possibility as it was so far away, but Victoria insisted and (after yet another hearty breakfast of biscuits, bacon and eggs!) got back behind the wheel to take John and Tony south to Philly.
Two hours later they arrived at the Philadelphia Shipyard and they were so pleased to have made the journey as John recognised the place immediately! The shape of basin was unchanged in 77 years and the three of them were able to explore quite freely by foot.
John remembered exactly where LST 322 had been berthed and the three wandered up to the area where he recalled the canteen had been located. It was wonderful for Victoria and Tony to witness his memories unfold and we are sure it must have been quite extraordinary for John to think of himself, aged 18, going about his duties there 77 years earlier.
With the 4th of July looming, Victoria drove John and Tony through downtown Philly so they could see the famous Independence Hall where both the United States Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were debated and signed in the late 18th Century.
The following day the three made their way back to New York where they were to spend three nights at the Warwick Hotel in Manhattan. Arriving in the afternoon, there was time to settle in before heading out to explore the busy streets. John recalled British military could get free tickets to see shows at the Radio City Music Hall, so they wandered a few blocks south so he could see it once again.
Later they headed over to Broadway to see “Jersey Boys”. This seemed a fitting choice given our recent adventures in New Jersey. John enjoyed the show very much, although he said he had never understood this modern need to swear so frequently… such a gent.
During John’s leave in New York he remembered visiting Central Park and the Empire State Building, which had only been completed a decade earlier when John ascended the 102 storeys in 1942. Victoria arranged for John to retrace his steps and the first stop was Central Park, this time in true New York style on a horse and carriage!
It was 4th of July and D-Day Revisited had arranged for John and his nephew to take a dinner river cruise on the Hudson and watch the annual firework display over Brooklyn Bridge. That evening John, Tony and Victoria put their glad rags on and made their way to Chelsea Piers to board the glass roofed “Bateaux New York”.
John was interested to see the Hudson shoreline as this is where he recalled the hub of activity as they prepared to take LST 322 back across the Atlantic to Europe.
John, Tony & Victoria enjoyed a delicious three course meal with the iconic Manhattan skyline always just a blink away. They mingled with nearby diners who were curious about John’s medals and his war service. Having made friends with an American lady and her German husband, they insisted the crew should know about John’s story. Before we knew it a voice echoed out over the tannoy announcing there was a British WWII veteran onboard who had travelled to America for the first time since the war. The Captain thanked him for his service and there was a round of applause from everyone onboard!
John spent some time chatting with members of the crew and was very humbled by everyone’s kind words and gratitude for what he did over seven decades ago.
The last time John passed the Statue of Liberty was on board LST 322 in the Spring of 1943. Just weeks ahead of his 95th birthday, John never expected to be gazing across the water at the iconic statue again.
As the night drew in, the skyline glittered with twinkling lights and the boat made it’s way over towards the opening of the East River. The crew brought a chair out for John so he would have “the best seat in the house” once the firework display began.
As they waited for the display to start John joked how ironic it was that, as an Englishman, he was being treated so well on the day upon which America commemorates its Independence from Britain! Whilst of course it was ironic, it was also rather wonderful to witness the calming effect of time on human animosity.
They didn’t even have to go back as far as 1776 to see forgiveness and friendship at work. When John first visited this city it was a hive of activity as young men and equipment were being shipped in and out in daily in aid of the war effort. There were still 3 years of war left to fight. When he climbed the Empire State Building in 1943 John didn’t know it, but he was weeks away from embarking on a series of fierce battles in Africa, Sicily, Anzio and Normandy, in which he would see hundreds of men killed and wounded. Over seven decades later he was raising a glass with the Americans to celebrate their Independence Day, sharing his stories and laughing with a friendly German man and his wife and looking out over the country which welcomed him as an 18 year old sailor during wartime! As the fireworks began, we are sure John felt a little overwhelmed and touched by the whole experience.
Slightly tipsy, admittedly exhausted, but happy, the three made their way back to the hotel to get a good night’s sleep as they had a lot to squeeze in to their last full day in New York! It began with bus tour; the perfect way for John to see the city.
Our first stop was the Empire State Building in Midtown Manhattan. At 1454 feet, this was the tallest building in the world when John ascended first time round in 1943! Now the 45th tallest building in the world and the 7th tallest in New York city, the Empire State is surrounded by competing skyscrapers and John was very interested to see the change in the skyline.
After a snack lunch John, Tony and Victoria hopped back on the Tour Bus which travelled south to Lower Manhattan; City Hall, Wall Street and the World Trade Centre site. They then wended their way back up West Street and the Hudson Piers they had visited the evening before, before disembarking and heading back to the hotel for a rest before dinner at a local Italian pizzeria.
The following evening John and Tony were due to fly home from JFK and so there was just enough time for lunch at the famous Katz Deli on the Lower East Side. A traditional pastrami sandwich and split pea soup in the bustling diner was a fitting final meal in the Big Apple!
The three returned to the hotel and said their goodbyes. What a whirlwind adventure they had! On returning home, John was interviewed by Paul Crone at ITV Granada television and the piece was aired on the evening news 16th July…
We are grateful to John for allowing us to share the story of his adventure here and in particular Victoria would like to thank him for allowing her to share his journey back to the United States. It was a real honour and an experience she will never forget.