As before, air of trepidation greets new D-Day invasion

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

January 13, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau

BOURNEMOUTH, England -- Betty Hockey remembers the tremendous tension on the eve of D-Day: "You sensed something was on, but you didn't know what. Everybody had a jolly good guess, of course!"

Mrs. Hockey and lots of other people here in the south of England feel pretty much the same way as the 50th anniversary of D-Day approaches amid preparations under way to commemorate the event.

On June 5, 1944, the night before the invasion of Normandy, Mrs. Hockey was a dancer with The Nonstops Troop Show entertaining at Holmesley camp, an airfield near here where both British and American fliers were based.

"When night came and the planes all started moving off in force, we were actually performing," she says. "The men kept coming and going.

"We sang the national anthems, and we started singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" and the Americans just took it right away from us. We stood there in tears. I can't go out there now without hearing those ringing voices."

The old air base is gone now. The runways are ripped up.

"I suppose a lot of them must have been shot down that night," she says. "I like to think some of them were singing our songs, that we raised their morale. I can just hear all their voices singing in unison. It's just amazing."

More than 2 million soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen, along with millions of tons of equipment, were gathered here along the Channel Coast of England in preparation for D-Day.

"The night before, the air was a bit electric," Mrs. Hockey says." Then the next day everybody'd gone, not a soul to be seen."

Like many here, she looks forward with excitement and trepidation to the 50th anniversary of D-Day and a new invasion by veterans of the Normandy landings. She'll be helping guide the visitors.

Her memories are both sweet and painful. Each new anniversary, fewer veterans remain. A strong sense that the 50th anniversary will be the last for many colors the celebration for Mrs. Hockey and others who were there in 1944.

She's 77 now, a sprightly woman with a handsome face, keen eyes and a long-cherished fondness for Americans. She has kept contact with many of the men from the units she entertained. Most of them remember her.

She's an old buddy of Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who served with the 22nd U.S. Army General Hospital at Blandford.

The Nonstops played Blandford, and the governor remembers the show. But he and Mrs. Hockey first met at reunions.

Mrs. Hockey usually drops in at the State House in Annapolis for a visit whenever she's in Maryland, which is fairly often.

"He's a character," she says. "I get a hug and a kiss from him."

She has frequently visited the headquarters of the veterans of 397th Bomb Group in Rockville. In 1944, they were stationed at Hurn, which is now the Bournemouth airport. They flew B-26 Marauders.

The 397th came to Bournemouth in 1992 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its formation.

Patchwork numbers on Mrs. Hockey's purple sweat shirt celebrate the 397th. She wears a 9th Air Force patch from World War II at her collar like a brooch.

Mrs. Hockey wore a kind of 1944 fringed miniskirt when she danced with The Nonstops, a 16-person troupe she led.

"I was the naughty one," she says with charming naivete, recalling the daring dances of 1944. "I did the can-can and a fan dance with feathers and the seven veils.

"You just dance around and shed the veils gradually and throw them out to the audience. But, of course, I never got them back."

Cloth was rationed, and she did the dance whenever she accumulated enough veils, usually out of somebody's attic. She had to quit doing her fan dance when the feathers in her fan wore out.

The troops loved her dances. A Canadian named Ewart Pearson wrote in her autograph book on May 4, 1944: "Mother didn't tell me everything after all before I came over."

"They were a grand bunch of fellows," she says. "It was a happy show. They joined in everything."

There was a brave camaraderie between the troops and the players.

"You lived for today and forgot about tomorrow," Mrs. Hockey says. "I suppose tomorrow never came for some of them."

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