For one longtime Scotland County resident, nearly seven decades of life in the United States came only by a wartime chance.
Margaret Smith, née Torrance, is a native of Hastings, a fishing port on the southeast coast of England. The second of five children, she lived above her family’s fish shop for much of her young life.
When World War II began in 1939, Smith was 17 and had completed three years of training as a nurse. In 1940, while walking along the beach with her friends and her dog, she met a Royal Air Force fighter pilot named Vic Aylott. The two were married on April 8, 1940, six weeks after their first date.
“There didn’t seem to be any reason to wait,” Smith said. “There was a war going on.”
Their son Michael was born in 1941, with daughter Pat following in 1942, but Smith’s good fortune came to a pause in 1943, when Aylott’s plane disappeared over the English Channel. He was declared missing and presumed dead in August of that year. His name is now commemorated in the Commonwealth Air Forces Memorial in Runnymede, England with the names of 20,000 other airmen and women lost in World War II.
Though never completely giving up hope that Aylott would be found, Smith and her two young children moved from Nottingham back to Hastings, where she worked part-time at the health department daycare.
“We all had to do something during the war,” Smith said. “You were more or less conscripted when you’re a certain age.”
Back home, sleeping in a bomb shelter and resurfacing every morning to discover nearby homes and buildings reduced to rubble became a common theme. But despite the rationing of food staples and going to bed hungry more often than not, many families made a habit of inviting Allied soldiers stationed nearby into their homes for a meal.
“There was a lot of rationing and that during the war - people in some other countries really didn’t know what the war was like,” Smith said. “On Sundays everyone in England was asked to put a little note on their front gate to invite the boys from overseas and have them to church and to lunch. A lot of people met like that.”
One such boy was Erwin Smith of Laurinburg, the American soldier who would become Smith’s second husband. On April 8, 1945, they were married in Emmanuel Church of England. One month later, the war in the European theatre ended, and Erwin Smith returned to the United States that fall. Smith and her two children were left to wait for transport with thousands of other “war brides,” as they were called.
On February 15, 1946, they boarded the S.S. Cristobal, a ship travelling from Southampton to New York, explicitly to transport war brides and their children. The ship arrived in New York on Feb. 26, 1946, and a few days later Smith travelled by train to Hamlet to begin a new life with her new husband in Laurinburg.
At first, she and Erwin Smith lived with his parents in their Turnpike Road home. Turnpike was then a dirt road, and the building had no indoor plumbing. The family’s mules were kept across the street, where Scotland Yard is today. Relocating to rural North Carolina from southeast England, where London was only a 50 mile train ride away, took a measure of adjustment.
“I always used to, if I was going to town from Hastings, get on the train and go up to London to see a show and think nothing of it,” said Smith. “Here I’d say when are you going to take me to town, and he’d say you’ve just come through it: Main Street.”
But the somewhat rustic atmostphere proved one of the less jarring adjustments from Smith’s lifestyle in England. Though Smith was aware of the American practice of racial segregation, she had difficulty accepting it as part of her daily life.
“I knew it, but I didn’t like it,” Smith said. “Of course I got into trouble a time or two with that sort of thing. I’d leave my children with a person while I worked - I figured if you’d let them take care of your most precious thing, there’s no reason to be separate.”
Eventually, the Smiths moved into their own apartment at the Laurinburg-Maxton Airbase, where Smith worked as a labor and delivery nurse in the airbase hospital. She later worked for Morgan Mills.
Smith gave birth to another daughter, Marilyn, six years after her arrival in the U.S. She has visited England infrequently since relocating, and when Erwin Smith died in 1984, considered Laurinburg too much her home to leave it.
“It was home to me then and my children were here, and my two English children,” Smith said. “We did think at one time about going back; he liked England, but it just didn’t happen.”
Smith’s two daughters, Pat Monroe and Marilyn Garner, still live in the area, while son Michael Aylott now lives in Texas.
With the help of her daughters, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and friends at Laurinburg Christian Church, Smith celebrated her 90th birthday on Dec. 27, 2012. Some 100 people joined in the occasion, including church friend Sharon Maag, who met first Smith in 1997.
“We have delivered fruit baskets and visited sick people and hosted ladies’ meetings together and attended weddings, baby showers, and funerals,” said Maag. “When I visited her at her apartment, she was always cooking and sharing with the neighbors, especially if any of them were sick. She walked dogs, checked blood pressures, checked mail, whatever she could do to help anyone. She has set a great example of being the hands and feet of Jesus. She also loves to tell jokes and laugh and has traveled whenever she could. She is one of the bravest, most courageous women I know.”