Derry GI bride returns home for 65th wedding anniversary

Norman and Susanah Thompson (nee Owens) pictured on their wedding day in Derry in 1949 surrounded by their family and friends. (1705MM20)
Norman and Susanah Thompson (nee Owens) pictured on their wedding day in Derry in 1949 surrounded by their family and friends. (1705MM20)

A Derry woman who left the city in 1948 as a GI Bride returned last week with her family to show them her home town.

Susanah Thompson (nee Owens) was born in the Stanley’s Walk area of the city but since leaving Derry she has travelled all over the world, living in California, Okinawa and Hawaii.

Her international travels began after she met her husband, Norman, who was stationed in Derry with the US Navy shortly after the Second World War.

Norman was serving in London after the war when he was ordered to report to Derry in 1947. His initial orders were to help with the closure of the American naval base in Derry. However that situation changed when the Americans decided to retain the base.

As he settled down to life in Derry, Norman began to mix with the locals, and befriended local man Peter Owens, who was well known in the city as a publican.

It was this friendship that led to Norman meeting Peter’s sister, Susanah.

The pair met shortly after Norman’s arrival in Derry and they were married in September 1948 in St Columba’s Church, Long Tower. This year the couple will celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary.

To mark the occasion, the couple returned to Derry last week to revisit some of the places from the earliest days of their courtship.

They were joined by their daughters and visited neices and nephews in the city.

The Thompsons left Derry in 1950 when Norman was posted back to the United States and settled close to his home town in Perris, California, before relocating to nearby San Diego.

Their travelling did not end there, however, as the family moved around due to Norman’s various postings during his 22 year naval career.

Despite being far from Derry, Susanah always kept in touch with relatives back home and took a keen interest in events in the city.

She has returned to the city a number of times over the years but her visit last week was the first since the mid 1980s.

Speaking to the ‘Journal,’ Susanah said she was “delighted” to be back home.

“It was great to see the place again,” she said.

However, being away from the city for so long did pose some problems for the former Stanley’s Walk resident upon her return.

“I couldn’t find my way around the town!

“Everything has changed so much. The last time I was in Derry I could walk around with no difficulty and knew where everything was but this time I noticed that things had changed.

“So much so that when we went to find the Long Tower Church, where we were married, we took a wrong turn and ended up in St Columb’s Cathedral.

“We would have been completely lost if it had not been for my niece, Majella Owens, who showed us around and told us where the good restaurants were.

“We did not get down to Stanley’s Walk in this visit; I think I would have got lost if I tried,” she said.

She also said she liked some of the new city landmarks such as the Peace Bridge but missed Derry as she remembered it.

“We drove past the Peace Bridge when we went on a tour of the city. There have been so many changes, some for the good and some not so good. It was certainly very different this time since my visit in the 1980s,” she explained.

The GI Bride said moving to American was a major culture shock at first.

“It was definitely different from Derry.

“We lived in a place called Imperial Beach and when I moved there it was summer and the heat was intense so it was a huge difference coming from Derry.

“I soon got used to the difference though and I got used to moving around as well.

“We lived overseas on a number of occasions in Okinawa, Japan, and in Hawaii. I was in Okinawa for four years and two of my children were born there,” she said.

The Derry woman never forgot where she came from, however.

“I still had family in Derry of course and in London and would regularly write and call them. I always kept an interest in what was happening in Derry. It was hard to keep track of what was happening at times because of all the trouble and all the changes that have happened but I really wanted to come back again with my family so we could see it for ourselves,” she said.

The couple’s daughter, Susie Thompson, also said the latest visit was special for the family.

“My mother was always proud of Derry. Raising seven children she did not get home as much as she might have liked but she was very close to her late sister, Eilish, who always kept her up to date with the news from Derry.

“With my parents’ 65th wedding anniversary coming up it was lovely to see the church where they were married all those years ago and to see how the city has changed over the years,” she said.