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“Operation Pied Piper”: Vivienne Montague speaks with her grandson about being relocated during World War II

Vivienne Montague (left) and Matthew Riley (right).

As part of the 2022 StoryCorps mobile tour, Matthew Riley speaks with his grandmother, Vivienne Montague, about her experience as a child in World War II. During the war, the British government decided to relocate children out of city centers (or target locations) to suburban and rural areas where the risk of bombing attacks was low or non-existent. Vivienne and her sister, Janet, were two such children; they lived away from their parents for two years, from 1942-1944.

Matthew Riley: I just wanted to give you a chance to share some stories that you’ve—some stories that you’ve told us over the years. But, you and your sister were evacuated from the city during World War II.

Vivienne Montague: Yes.

Matthew Riley: And could you tell us a little bit about what that was like?

Vivienne Montague: Well, I was born in 1938. So when I was four, in ’42, and my sister was nine, we were evacuated, which was a program by the government that recommended that children were sent away from any area that might be bombed. We actually lived in the suburbs, and it was London that was bombed so terribly. But I guess my parents thought it was a good idea. Some parents weren’t with their children, but mine had to work, so it was just my sister and I. We were put on a train. We didn’t know where we were going. Our parents didn’t know where we were going. We had a gas mask around our neck and the name label. So we got on the train and went to Cornwall, which was a long, long way. It was on the west coast of England. And we were on the train for hours and hours and hours. And we finally got there. And my sister told me—I didn’t remember this, obviously—but she told me we went into a school hall. She remembered the man’s name: Mr. So-and-So had a clipboard. And the people that wanted to take us in were standing around in groups. And then the children came in. And each grown-up picked a child, or two or three children, and said, Well, I’ll have that one. Or, I'll have those two boys, but I don't want all four boys. So children were split up. But anyway, Janet, and I was were not split up. We went together. And we actually stayed with three different families.

But the first one we stayed with, they were awful—really awful. And they kept chickens, and they had to feed the chickens. So Janet and I had to climb on the rocks that were kind of like the Oregon Coast—very rugged, very rocky—and get these limpets off the rocks and fill a bucket, so they could feed the chickens with that. And that was probably terrifying. I still have a fear of water, fear of drowning... All the time. But I don’t know if it came from that or some other story. But then then we will move somewhere else. And the girl that lived in that first house, she was dreadful, she was a bully and very unkind to us. My mother had met a lady who recommended this couple in Bodmin. She said, They take in evacuees. Why don't you have your girls go over there? So we were moved to Bodmin, and we stayed with that family for about a year and a half. So we were away, altogether, for two years. So from when I was four until I was six, and then so I went home—so we both went home in 1942... 1944, when the war was still on—and I don’t know where any of those decisions came from. But the whole evacuee thing by the government was called “Operation Pied Piper.”

Matthew Riley: Did you—did you feel like the home that you came back to was very different?

Vivienne Montague: I don’t remember feeling it was any different. I think the neighborhood might have been different. There were bombed houses, which was just piles of rubble and bricks, and wood, and we called them “the brick fields,” and we would play there. And being British, you know, the stoicism of the British, we didn’t talk about it. I just came home and started school, went back to school because I had learned I've been going to school in Cornwall. So I learned to read and write and all that. And nobody really suggested any kind of counseling or anything. We just came back and packed our bag and got on with it. That was just the way we operated...

Matthew Riley: As if nothing had ever happened.

Vivienne Montague: Exactly. Exactly. Yes. And my sister was older. She might remember more, but she would never have owned up to it. She—we did mention that one time. Do you think the war affected you? And she, you know, That's absolutely overdramatic.

Matthew Riley: And she never talked about it?

Vivienne Montague: She’d actually talked about it twice in our lifetimes. And she passed away about three years ago, and a couple of months before she died. I heard—I wanted to talk about it, but she wouldn’t. And then another time she was visiting in Kalispell, and we took a walk. And she talked about it then. And I said, Let's, let's, I'm gonna put a recorder on when we get home, and I want you to just go over that. She said, I'm never going to talk about it again. And she never really did and I don’t know. I don’t know what the trauma was... If it was anything specific, or if it was just going away.

The 2022 StoryCorps mobile tour is recording at the Missoula Public Library, giving Missoulians the opportunity to preserve their conversations and stories for future generations. StoryCorps Missoula is brought to you in part by Clearwater Credit Union, Partners Creative, and Montana State Fund.