A young evacuee who first came to Hemel Hempstead just before the outbreak of the Second World War and then stayed to begin a career that took him all the way to the White House has died at the age of 81, shortly after writing a book looking back over his eventful life.
John Adams was just seven years old when the air raid sirens first sounded in London in 1939, and in the book he tells how he and his classmates boarded a special train to take them to safety just two days before war was declared.
They were taken to Hemel Hempstead – a town he admits he had never heard of before he arrived – and by bus to a large church hall.
“We all sat on the floor waiting for local residents to come by and decide which of us they were willing to accept into their houses,” he recalls. “It was a long wait.
“Girls were preferred as they were expected to be better behaved. I was among the last group of ragtag boys.
“As the hall emptied, we began to wonder what would happen if nobody came to claim us. Finally, a billeting officer found someone willing to take us in.”
Home was now a tiny four-room terraced house, the home of a truck driver and his warm, loving wife. The couple already had two children and welcomed the new addition.
John’s younger brother, then only three, wasn’t so lucky – although he was evacuated with their mother, she was billeted with a clergyman in Bletchley and treated as unpaid domestic labour.
John has clear memories of the declaration of war. “A fellow evacuee and I were fishing for tiddlers in a river near our new home when three piercingly loud sirens were heard just before noon.
“A man passing by told us that means war had started, and we should go home.
“As seven-year-old Londoners, we had never seen a natural river or stream before and were reluctant to give up our newfound activity, war or no war. We could see no bombers overhead, but eventually everything became eerily quiet, so we knew something must be up.”
John soon made himself useful, getting a morning job helping an elderly milkman called Horace on his rounds.
“His milk cart was pulled by an equally elderly horse who knew exactly where to stop and start without a word from anyone,” he writes.
“Having freshly arrived from London, where there were few horses to be seen, I found this totally fascinating.”
Education had to continue despite the hostilities, and evacuee teachers were put in charge of the new arrivals, working in a large, draughty Victorian building that had been scheduled for demolition.
At the age of 10, John won a scholarship to Hemel Hemsptead Grammar School and by this time the family were reunited. John’s father, a department store manager and First World War veteran, rented a house in the town and commuted back to London six days a week, serving as an air raid warden when he could.
When his brother was old enough to go to school, his mother started work making bomb cases.
“There was no shortage of jobs,” said John. “It seemed that every family in England was engaged in the war effort in one way or another.”
Thankfully, Hemel Hempstead was not in the front line, but people were still vigilant. “Hemel Hempstead had its own colossal searchlight, operated by a team of young women soldiers with whom we enjoyed flirting on our way home from school,” he said. “We were not a main target, but close enough to the American air base at Bovingdon that we attracted occasional attention.
“We often awoke to sirens warning that German bombers were in the area and we became quite expert at identifying the distinctive throb of their engines.
“Our house had no basement, so if the bombers seemed to be getting too close, our parents would insist that my brother and I sleep on a mattress beneath the staircase – the safest place, apparently, if the house was hit.”
And there were near misses: “An occasional bomb exploded too close to the school, sending us all scampering to the basement, where classes continued among walls of sandbags.
“It was tough for the teachers to make themselves heard, but great fun for us kids.”
John began a career in journalism that took him around the world and eventually to his current home in America’s capital.
Next week, in a second look at his memoir, you can read how the 16-year-old school leaver joined the Gazette, and had to make do without either typewriter or phone.
In The Trenches – Adventures in Journalism & Public Affairs by John Adams is available on Amazon.