Sylvia Ashley Kellner has been a hairdresser in Xenia for many years, but you only have to chat a short while to recognize the British accent. She was born in New Brighton in Cheshire, England.
When she was only 2 years old, her mother died, leaving her and her brother in the care of their father, Thomas James Henry Ashley. It was then that her mother’s mother came to live with them in a lovely five-bedroom home.
She was a small child when Hitler began to invade other countries in Europe. They lived not far from the beach, but could not play there because the British Army had placed land mines to deter a German invasion. She remembers an iron fence in front of the house which was removed to make ammunition.
When the air raid sirens were heard, her father would pick her up from bed and proceed to the makeshift shelter under the staircase in the house. In later years, shelters were made by digging a trench into the ground and then covering it with corrugated iron over the top.
As the war progressed, the family moved in with her Grandmother’s sister in Omscirk, outside Liverpool. Beside the small thatched cottage was a large field which had been plowed. Two German bombs were dropped and exploded after they were deeply buried in the field.
Next they moved to Brighton, but the bombs continued to come, and the air raid sirens continued to warn. Houses were left in rubble and windows were blown out. Holes appeared in the walls of the house, and the children were required to wear gas masks going to and from school. Families were encouraged to place a wet tablecloth over a table so the children could sit under the table to breathe cleaner air.
She attended school with a neighbor of her aunt who became very famous. He was Paul McCartney of Beatle fame.
She remembers the American soldiers passing in formation near the house. She would call from the window “do you have any gum?” and sometimes, she received a piece or even a candy bar. Often the soldiers would ask if she had an older sister.
Those early years of being on alert constantly are still remembered. The frequent trips to the bomb shelter, the sounds of the air raid sirens and the bombs falling all still remain in her memory. The German army continued to try to capture England, until the English, Americans and allies managed to throw over the wave of terror.
Finally, there was peace in England. Her father owned a car, and often the family went on picnics, taking the usual picnic fare along with a Bunsen burner to heat the water for tea.
She remembered a cemetery which was a short cut often taken and a particular head stone of a child engraved with the following: “Chewing gum, chewing gum made of wax, brought me to my grave at last.”
Her father was an artist, as were other members of the family. He was a contractor who painted murals inside several homes. At the Health Minister’s home, he painted a mural of large ships over a fireplace. Her Aunt Lucy painted flowers for Princess Margaret.
When Sylvia was a little older, she learned the art of hair-dressing and worked in a salon. One day, her father, dressed in his suit with the white jacket he always wore, went to work riding his motorcycle. He and a friend were passing a steel factory when two trucks were exiting. The first driver motioned them on, but the second truck did not stop, so her father ran into that truck and was instantly killed. A policeman friend came to the salon to tell her the news.
She lived near Sealand US Air Force Base and often went to the dances there. A bus would come to town to get the young women and drop then at the base, returning at the end of the evening. It was there that she met Russell Kellner. They struck up a friendship and before he went back to the US asked her to marry him. She agreed but he was shipped home before they could make arrangements for a wedding.
She boarded the magnificent Queen Elizabeth for her journey to her new life. She had never seen corn on the cob, so that was a new treat, but the storms were severe while she was on board, and she spent most of the time seasick.
Finally, the ship docked, a reporter from the New York Times asked to take her picture (War Bride). She hunted for Russell in the crowd and when they finally met they hurried to the car. She recalls seeing only the lowest portion of the huge skyscrapers in New York before they headed for Dublin, Ohio to stay with Russell’s aunt. The next week, they went to Delaware, Ohio where they were married. Their first home was an apartment in Wilmington, over a beauty salon. The shop owner was on the Ohio State Board of Cosmetology and so took the young bride to Columbus to get her Ohio cosmetology license.
From time to time, Russell would say he wanted to move back to England, so she waited a few years before applying for citizenship. It was a beautiful day in 1999 when she became a citizen of the United States of America.
She is in the process of writing her memoirs in which she will tell more of her early days in England.
Joan Baxter is a local resident and long-time historical columnist.