Woman’s letters across Atlantic during WWII are basis of book

Woman’s letters across Atlantic during WWII are basis of book

6 October 2021

A NEW book based on the correspondence of an American woman living in Co Down during the Second World War has just been published.

Midnight Again – The Wartime Letters of Helen Ramsey Turtle was recently launched at Mahee Island on Strangford Lough from where many of the letters were written.

It was fitting that many of the guests at the launch had wartime links with the Turtle family, and a warm welcome was extended to them by Helen Ramsey Turtle’s daughter, Julie Mackie.

Helen Ramsey was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1911 and by chance met Lancelot Turtle when visiting her aunt in Lisburn in 1927.

On Helen’s return to the United States, a prolific correspondence between Helen and Lancelot began and continued until their marriage in 1933, after which they settled in Belfast.

At the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939 and cut off from her family in Denver, Helen Turtle made sure that they knew every aspect of the life she was now living.

The threat of a German invasion was ever present. The Blitz was described in ‘code’ for fear of the censor’s scissors and the inconvenience of the blackout and rationing were persistent topics.

That these letters survived the Battle of the North Atlantic and were meticulously kept by Helen’s mother and sister in Colorado is remarkable. That they made the return journey across the ocean 50 years later is equally so.

This publication is the result and it brings to life a Northern Ireland culture rarely depicted and with the bonus of seeing it through the prism of an American eye.

In one of her first letters, written on September 4, 1939, Helen reflects on the declaration of war just a few days 

earlier: ‘So far the war has made no difference to us apart from blacking out our house and car lights. Every time I seriously think about it I can’t believe it, and it makes me clear sick to think about it. I can’t imagine anyone I know having to bombs or fight anyone.

‘We haven’t decided where to live — Mahee is obviously safer but if petrol is limited and food is very much rationed, we will be cut off not only from supplies but from our friends… I am beginning to think that our peace of mind here at Mahee will be worth the loneliness and inconvenience because we are so near the airport in Belfast that those constant planes would have us jittery day and night — however, we can only wait and see.

‘Time will tell and meanwhile we live from day to day — we have no future... International marriages have their disadvantages, but this is the biggest drawback yet.’

In another letter written in February 1941, Helen describes some of the dietary deprivations brought about by the war: ‘Just in the past 3 or 4 weeks food has been gradually disappearing — bananas, grapefruit, onions, spaghetti, jam and marmalade, oranges, lemons, chocolate, sweets of all kinds, biscuits, tinned things of all kinds, packets of jellies, etc. are going, going, gone.

And the meat ration is 1/2d per person...butter 2oz a week, sugar 4oz, tea 2 oz, bacon (about 2 strips each), margarine 4oz, chickens are 8/- each…eggs are still nearly 4/- a dozen.

‘However, despite all these snags, we are as happy as kings with the garden full of snowdrops, Spring around the corner and the daylight until nearly 7 o’clock… One of the big advantages of country life is this next-to-nature move that makes us appreciate every rag of sun, every bird that sings, not to mention the bees and the trees.’

Approaching war’s end, she writes on May 3, 1945: ‘How near we are to V.E. Day you will know when you get this. I think it will be today or tomorrow. I am going straight from here to buy the biggest American flag I can find — our English one is at Mahee — we will get it on Saturday.

‘Gay and Julie are worked up to fever pitch — they rush down to read the headlines every morning and have been very interested in the paper since they started guessing how many miles the Russians were from Berlin.’

Midnight Again – The Wartime Letters of Helen Ramsey Turtle is available online from Blackstaff Press and Amazon, and in No Alibis Bookstore, Waterstones, Belfast, and at WWT Castle Espie Wetland Centre.