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Compelling Stories of British Children Who Escaped `the Storm'

ORPHANS OF THE STORM PBS, premi`ering Tuesday, Dec. 26, 9 p.m. (Please check local listings). IN the summer of 1940, with the continent of Europe overrun by German forces and the angry whine of German bombers hovering over Britain, more than 10,000 British children were evacuated from Britain to America.

They left their parents at train and bus stations and eerie port cities, not knowing if they would ever be reunited. They sailed to America on non-military ocean liners, often escorted by the Royal Navy. Some of the liners were torpedoed by German submarines.

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``Orphans of the Storm'' chronicles this little-known chapter of World War II as part of its second season of ``The American Experience.'' It's a 16-episode program with author and historian David McCullough as host. Producers Rex Cowan and Gill Barnes have pieced together some extraordinary footage of the children, seen in press conferences making filmic ``letters'' for their parents to say they are enjoying America, and arriving to welcoming crowds in New York City.

Interviews with many of the children, now grown, accompany the footage, along with photographs of the children's foster homes and guardians. Their stories are told in their own words, with appropriate context supplied by narrator Sada Thomas.

My favorite story is that of actress Claire Bloom, who lived with a family in Florida and became a child performer to promote the British cause.

``I'm a little English girl knocking at your door, driven from my home by the gods of War,'' she sings, recalling the door-to-door jingle she offered to elicit money. ``Asking but the right to live and share the sun, praying for the night when bombing will be done.''

Most of the stories begin and end sadly, with both separation and reunification about six years later tinged with grief, profound melancholy, and distress. Many children experienced culture shock over the affluence of their hosts.

``Well, I left a very small and pokey bungalow ... and I found myself in what was really a mansion,'' recalls writer Tony Bailey who ended up in Dayton, Ohio. ``It was a huge house and even going back to it many years later, it hasn't shrunk the way things do....'' A number of testimonies relate how close the children grew to their host families, making it traumatic to return home in 1946.

There is a strong narrative value to ``Orphans of the Storm,'' and although the sections are heavy on the talking-heads scale, the stories are so compelling and vivid that monotony and tedium are held at bay.

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Behind the individual stories is the greater story of how Americans welcomed the British children, despite a national resistance to send arms to Britain and compromise American neutrality. Even at the beginning of the British evacuation program, there were five million Americans offering shelter.

``There was a sense that America ought to do more,'' says Travis Crosby, history professor at Wheaton College (Mass.). ``Here was an opportunity for them to do that ... a chance to accept the children of those British families who were actively participating in the war.''

Besides individual families reaching out, various companies and individuals offered aid. The Hoover Vaccuum Cleaner Co., with branches in England, brought the children of its employees to North Canton, Ohio. Eleanor Roosevelt and Marshall Field set up the American Committee for the Care of European Children. Eventually, sparked in part by the savage attacks of Nazi U-boats on ships carrying children, American foreign policy made its dramatic shift to support Britain and the allies.

``I had not counted on the war lasting so long,'' recalls Barbara Forrest, re-reading part of a high-school graduation speech. ``And neither had I foreseen that I should become so attached to America. One day I woke up to the fact that going back to England wouldn't be quite as simple as I anticipated.'' As the film makes clear, most children were affected deeply by the freedom, openness and sheer size of America. Most accounted the experience a welcome growth.

``In the US, people are judged according to what they achieve, and not according to how they speak or what school they went to,'' says Shirley Williams, now a professor of elective politics at John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. ``I guess that my American experience has always given me that feeling that society doesn't have to be like that - that it ... can be open, that it can be unstructured, that it can be unhierarchical - and those three things, certainly, I regard as fruits of my American experience as a child.''

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