Six days after setting sail from Scotland, my brother Johnny Clay and I stood pressed against the railing of the Gray Ghost. It was June 21, 1945. We were only two of fifteen thousand passengers. Soldiers filled the upper decks, so crushed together that I was afraid I might have to jump overboard to breathe. The fog settled thick around our shoulders as we waited for the first sight of land.
Ever since I was a little girl, growing up in my brother’s shadow, it was important that I see things first. But this time I’d decided to let him win. He needed to win because the war had changed him. Every day I looked at his face, searching for some trace of the boy I knew—my brother, my best friend, champion gold panner, rider of the rails, paratrooper—and sometimes he was there and sometimes he wasn’t. Today he was somewhere in between, here one moment and then gone again, like the sun on a cloudy day.
Thanks to a German bullet, Johnny Clay would always limp, but he didn’t mind this because all the best cowboys limped. The thing that troubled him more was the middle finger of his left hand and the fact that—also thanks to a German bullet—it was missing from the knuckle up. My brother was vain, and limping was one thing, but missing a finger was another. He was a gold panner and a guitar player. These were the things he could do best, once upon a time when he was whole, even though he’d done other things—roped cattle, flown and jumped out of planes. Now, if you asked him what he was going to do with himself, he’d tell you he guessed he might do anything he set his mind to. But he’d say it in a far-off way, as if he didn’t really mean it or care much at all.
The fog was so heavy that I could barely see the water, but as the ship went churning through, the spray hit my face. Before the war, the Gray Ghost had been the Queen Mary, the grandest ship on the ocean, but since 1942 she’d been used to transport troops across the world. Soldiers crowded to my left, to the back of me, to the right of Johnny Clay. I stood, my arm against my brother’s, staring out into nothing and thinking over everything I’d seen and done since the last time I’d been home to North Carolina, early in 1943. If you asked me what I planned to do now that I was going home again, I would tell you that for the first time in my life I didn’t know.
“What do you think New York City looks like, Johnny Clay?” I wondered if it was grander than Paris, where I’d worked as a spy, where my name had been Clementine Roux, where I’d cut and dyed my hair and pretended to be French, and where I had been captured by the Germans. I stared out at the fog and saw all the places I’d been: Scotland, England, Germany, and the villages and cities of France. I thought of the pieces of me I’d left behind, a piece here, a piece there, scattered like bread crumbs. How much of me was left?
My brother leaned over the rail, so far that I felt myself reaching for him, ready to pull him back. He said, “See for yourself.”
All at once, the haze lifted, and in the distance I could see the black outline of land. Something appeared through the clouds—at first a dusky mass, like a haint, but then a form. A crown, a torch held high. The Statue of Liberty. The torch had been dark since the war began but now it burned bright through the mist.
The soldiers started to cheer. Two dirigibles flew low in the sky. A helicopter passed over the ship, then another. From somewhere, a song was playing, as if the city was singing. Smaller boats steamed past, blowing three long whistles. The Gray Ghost responded with a rumbling, knee-shaking blast—like thunder. Flags flew from the tops of buildings and from the windows, which were open and filled with people leaning out. A brass band played on the pier: “God Bless America.”
I laid a hand on my brother’s arm, lightly, hoping he wouldn’t move it away. I said, “Oh, Johnny Clay. It’s beautiful.”
We pushed down the gangplank, carried by the crowd. Fifteen thousand soldiers fighting to be first on shore. I held tight to Johnny Clay’s hand, my feet barely touching the wood of the dock. With my other hand, I held tight to my hatbox, my Mexican guitar, my mandolin, until Johnny Clay took them from me. I didn’t need to walk because the men around me were pushing me forward. Thousands of people lined the pier and the harbor, waving, crying, shouting out names. Banners held high, flying in the breeze that skimmed off the water: “Welcome home, boys! Well done!” Handkerchiefs to mouths. Sobbing. Laughing. The first of the soldiers off, straining to find loved ones in the ocean of faces and waving hands. Men in uniform kneeling down to kiss American ground. Newsreel crews gathered, interviewing the returning heroes. Confetti falling like rain. I wanted to cover my ears from the noise, but I didn’t dare let go of my brother’s hand. It was his bad hand. I tried not to feel the knuckle, the smooth knot of it where the skin had grown over.
Just like that, we were on land. Back to America. Home. From somewhere, I heard my name and turned. I could see a man running, holding on to his hat. “Velva Jean Hart?”
“You’re the little girl pilot, the WAVE . . .”
“WASP.” I wasn’t a WASP anymore—Women Airforce Service Pilots, responsible for ferrying planes and bombers to military bases. The WASP had been disbanded in December. I wasn’t anything anymore, just a girl wanting to get back to her family and her mountains.
“Right, sure, WASP. You were in the British papers.”
Was I? I didn’t remember. I’d been too busy worrying over Johnny Clay, sitting at his bedside in the base hospital, praying for him to wake up, to get better, for months, and then waiting to go home, to be told he was strong enough, to find a ship with enough room to take us.
“Martin Seever, New York Post. Mind if I ask a few questions?”
“How old are you, honey?”
“Where’re you from?”
“Alluvial. It’s in the mountains.”
“You the brother?” The man with the hat looked at Johnny Clay.
“Yessir.” Johnny Clay narrowed his eyes.
The brass band played “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as men kissed their wives, parents, children.
“How did it feel to be rescued by your sister? Is it true she picked you up herself and carried you into the plane?”
I thought Johnny Clay was going to punch the man. I said, “There was another man, an agent.” I didn’t want to say too much. A Frenchman. I don’t know his real name but I still have the gold ring he gave me.
“Now before this, you let yourself be captured by the Germans and placed in a French prison, is that true?” The reporter was looking at
“It was supposed to happen that way, but I was taken early.”
Martin Seever, New York Post, was writing down everything I said. He wanted to know how I got out of prison, was I tortured, what did the Nazis do to me, how did I find the agent, how did I free myself from the train that was sending me and all the others to Ravensbrück concentration camp. I told him Johnny Clay helped free me, he and the other agents. We fought off the Germans together as we escaped through the Palatinate Forest to France.
“Is that where you found the plane?” This was from another man, with a notebook and a cameraman.
“Just outside the forest on a German airfield, yes.”
A third reporter appeared: “Had you ever flown a German plane before?”
“You were shot at by Germans and Americans on your way to England?”
We were surrounded. They asked us to pose for pictures, the Statue of Liberty in the background, holding up two fingers in the V for Victory sign. One of the men had a moving picture camera. He said he was Ed Dale with News of the Day.
Johnny Clay said, “The newsreels?”
“That’s the one.”
Ed Dale pointed the camera at us. “Look right into the lens. Smile and wave. Put your arm around her, son, lean on her just a little. Wave that hand, the one missing the finger. Now, honey, you look up at your brother and then back at the camera, right in there. Thatta girl. Remember—you’re happy to be home. You’re a brave soldier but you’re grateful just the same. You’re a daring aviatrix, second girl in history to fly a bomber across the ocean. You’re a war hero—the girl who saved her brother after he was shot by the Germans, the girl who stole a German plane and not only saved the life of her brother but of a secret agent, important to the Allies. But you’re also just a little girl who loves her country and now you’re back in that country and the war is all but over.”
I tried to do everything he was telling me. I ran a hand over my hair, which was wild and too curly from the salt air. The color had grown out where I’d dyed it almost black, and it was back to its regular color, not quite honey, not quite gold, not quite brown. I touched my bottom lip where there was still scar tissue, courtesy of a German interrogator. My face was wet from crying. I reached a hand up to wipe the tears away and Ed Dale said, “No, no. Leave them there. That’s perfect. Now blow a kiss to America.”
The sun broke through the fog and I tilted my face to the sky, closing my eyes for a second to soak it in. And then I looked into the camera and blew a kiss.