The Yanks are Coming

Spring 1942 found many American service personnel stationed in Northern Ireland, as part of the United States reaction to the events of 7th December 1941, and the attack on Pearl Harbor naval base. Preparations for war were underway, and yet many were experiencing a lull before the storm. Chuck Leighton, of the 119th Engineers, spent the most idyllic part of his stay on the banks of Lough Erne.

Fishing was my special hobby. I did a lot of fishing on Lough Erne. See, we went in there and took over a camp that had been built by American workers. They were just leaving. They had been there since way before Pearl Harbour. It was kind of a secret base. And their part in building it was secret, too. It was well camouflaged and it was an inland sea-plane base. We were there to guard that base. The people told me there was an island in that lake for every day of the year. This one day I had some fish, oh, eleven or twelve inches long, that I'd caught on a spinning rod my mother had sent. I got some chalk line and threw it out there and I'd reel it in by hand. This Irishman came up and said, "What are you catching there, young fellow?" I said, "I'm getting some nice fish." He looked and said, "I'd use those for bait." So I said, "Where do you catch bigger ones?" He said, "I'll bring some over." He brought fish over that were two or three feet long. He'd got out over around those islands and trolled with a rubber fish that had great big hooks in it as big as my finger. And I went back to camp and I thought, "How can I get me one of those?" But we couldn't really go out in boats at all. This was right there where we camped
Chuck Leighton

Just as the censored portions of Bob Reed's letters remind us that serious military preparations formed the true subtext of the Gl's reports, so too Leighton recalls a moment that put his lovely lakeside stay in context.

I knew that base was made for sea planes to fly Atlantic patrols. It was very well camouflaged. Those Quonset huts were all out there among the trees. I remember one day a guy from our company was hanging out his laundry on a clothes line he'd rigged up from tree to tree. Our sergeant in the engineers was an American Indian. His name was Milt Sessions. He was from the Black Hills of South Dakota. He had a permanent rank of sergeant that was given him by Congress. No one could break him.

Milt saw a guy hanging out his underwear. We had dark brown shirts, green underwear and shorts. But this fellow had white ones and he put them out on the laundry line. The American Indian, Milt Sessions, came out. He took an axe and threw it maybe ten yards. It struck into the tree and cut that rope. He said, "Get your damned white laundry off that!" Everything was camouflaged except for the underwear among those trees! Milt Sessions said, "Now wash them again!"
Chuck Leighton

The base itself represented the real face of war. Leighton was amazed at its modernity and completeness. He knew that he was among the first Americans to enter the war, and getting here was evidence of a US involvement that predated Pearl Harbor by a year.

The base itself was really high class, very modern. It was mysterious: big hangers, transit huts with hospital beds in them and finished wooden floors. The kitchen was real modern. That was the first time I saw automatic potato peelers. You put in ten pounds of potatoes and they got peeled. It was a real Navy kitchen. We got to know the American workers there who had built it. A few were still around. No one at home had known anything about what they were doing! We were sitting around there one night and one of the workers brought out a ten-string ukelele. Now, I fool around with the uke and the guitar but this was most unusual: three strings on each side and four in the middle. He bragged that this once belonged to the red-headed music maker - that was the nickname of the guy who wrote "Singing in the Rain". I bought it from him! Now our job was to guard the base that these guys had built.
Chuck Leighton

This scene embodies the odd juxtapositions that seemed to be the norm in Northern Ireland during those first few months. Here was an American worker involved in a top-secret project, another pre-Pearl Harbor US secret mission, which like Tuck Smith's presence in an RAF crew would have appalled the isolationist members of Congress and put President Roosevelt at risk of impeachment. That this worker had brought his ten-string guitar on his undercover mission and then had the presence of mind to sell before he went home is part of the mix of ordinary and extraordinay central to the Yanks' experience in Ireland.

Johnny Doughboy found a Rose and Chuck Leighton played the red-headed music maker's instrument and Bob Reed rode his bike along the Lagan, while at the same time they readied themselves for the bloody invasions to follow. The people of Northern Ireland had no way of knowing whether these friendly GIs would survive beyond their youth. Indeed, the youth was the one characteristic the Gls shared. They came from vastly different backgrounds, but all were young and for the vast majority, Pearl Harbour had triggered a precipitous jump from civilian life to the military. In a matter of hours, for example, Joe Larkin from New Jersey went from college student to second lieutenant in the army. He would become part of the wave of US soldiers to arrive in Northern Ireland in April 1942.

I grew up in Englewood, a little town in the northern part of New Jersey. I went to school there at St Cecilia's Grammar School and Dwight Morrow's High School and left to go to Massachusetts Institute Technology, class of 1941. I was at MIT when the Second World War began. I was glued to the radio on 7 December when Pearl Harbor was attacked. The next day, in my Reserved Officer's Training Corps meeting, I was told, "Cadet Larkin, report to me after class." Right then I was ordered to active duty; I hadn't even graduated. I entered the army as a reserve officer really just hours after Pearl Harbor. I was actually thrilled and delighted. I'd been taking flying lessons, learning to be pilot. So I sent my father a telegramme: "Please send birth certificaty Will explain later." He responded: "Telephone home immediately! Explain now!" He wasn't too thrilled with this. I ended up with my lieutenant's commissions and requested transfer to the Air Corps. But while I waited I went overseas with the 209th Coast Artillery.

I shipped out of Brooklyn in April 1942 in a large convoy. We encountered German submarines almost immediately off of Long Island. It was depth charges all the way thereafter. We finally arrived in Belfast in early May and went to Palace Barracks in Holywood, of all things.

My company guarded the camp and I was officer of the day frequently. Other batteries had to train on the British anti-aircraft weapons, but the headquarter's battery that I was a part of did not, so I was officer of the day a lot. As such, all these ATS girls - members of the British Army Auxiliary - had to report through me. That got rather humorous from time to time. I would have to ask for their ID cards. One of those young ladies came up to me and spread out these pictures of herself. Amongst them was a very revealing photo of herself. She just wanted to embarrass that young pink-cheeked second lieutenant. She did. She embarrassed me. They were always pulling tricks like that to embarrass me.

The men on the batteries were being trained to defend against attacking German planes in England. We were welcomed royally and we got along well. I can remember going down into Belfast on Saturdays and Sundays in the pitch black darkness of the city. Lights were shut down to prevent bombing. We danced at the Red Cross Club with female military personnel.
Joe Larkin

As the new troops arrived, the old hands welcomed them. Bob Reed wrote home on the very day that the contingent containing his own outfit arrived.

12 May 1942 - Northern Ireland

We had to give them the benefit of our experience with British coinage, blackouts, theaters, the Irish people, and so on. We may have thrown in a little "bull" here and there about the risks, but they'll soon find out it was all in fun. Now that the outfit is safely here, I hope I can tell you [censored]. The group that was here with me will be absorbed in the crowd, I'm afraid. We had a cheery time together with that spirit binding us together which is found only in small groups.

Have been golfing quite a bit lately. There's a pretty course just a few minutes from "home". My scores are still astronomical, but we have a lot of fun. There's a creek winding back and forth across it, and I invariably land in it several times each round, at the cost of a stroke each time. Have also bought a bicycle - something very handy over here. You don't feel silly riding one because everybody rides one mothers going to market, cops on their beat, army officers going to work.

They're different in some ways from ours. The brakes operate on the rim from a lever on the handlebar, and mine has three speeds on it. I can beat the trolleys, scooting around the city. This afternoon I rode throughout the heart of the city amidst trams, buses, cars, wagons and pedestrians as nonchalant as you please. It wasn't very hard to adapt to keeping to the left, and signalling for a right turn.

Now that summer has arrived, I'm beginning to see Belfast is a very pretty city in places. The homes here are generally of brick because they haven't the forests we have, and the people in the better districts have their front lawns full of flowers and rock gardens instead of just grass. Petey would love it here. Their homes are also surrounded by a shoulder high hedge, giving them a little privacy.

Mother's Day isn't observed over here, but it probably will be before the Yanks leave. I took a bouquet to the lady who has been so good to me and it pleased her immensely. She's been very hospitable, the rest of the family too, and I can't stop in enough to suit them. The grand mother is a salty Scotswoman with a quaint sense of humor and a love for the old-fashioned virtues. I'm trying to convince her that all Americans aren't criminals and divorcees as the movies show us. The streets are thronged with uniforms. Practically everyone has a uniform of some kind, even the women. The girls are either ATS (Army), WAAFs (Air Force), WRENS (Navy), AFS (Fire), VAD (I dunno), and a bunch of others less well known.

Ireland continues to be as pleasant as ever; since spring came the natives say we've had an exceptionally good spring - the remark I made in the first letter about the sun coming out three times, apparently not holding true this year. I hope it continues.
From the letters of Bob Reed

A part of the 34th Division was based near Dungannon and then moved to Ardmore near Derry. Milburn Henke still recalls the names of the people in the areas he met.

We made a lot of friends. Families would invite us in for meals and we would try to reciprocate, because we knew that if they invited us in for dinner, they were taking away from their ration. We'd go in to the mess sergeant. Nobody likes Spam, so if we could chisel out a can of Spam, we'd take it to the family. And if they had a young lady maybe eighteen- or nineteen-years-old, we'd try to get by the supply sergeant and sneak out a khaki shirt or something.

I remember Paddy Woods. He ran the pub in Dungannon and he was especially a good friend of ours. Every time you got broke, why, you hocked in your wristwatch, and at the end of the month when you got paid, then you paid him. I remember a fellow by the name of Joe Little. He was with the constabulary. When we were stationed near Beech Hill House there was a kind of a park there, and that's where we were billeted, in the Quonset huts. There was a constable by the name of Davey Burns who had that particular beat. I played tennis with a man named Patrick Scott.
Milburn Henke

His sensitivity to the rationing situation seems to indicate that Milburn Henke took to heart one of the central admonitions of the guide.

Ulster is a most hospitable place. If you pause at a farmer's house, you are likely to be invited in for a cup of tea. Tea is now rationed, but recently an American soldier speaking on a short-wave broadcast said he had drunk more tea during his first two weeks in Ireland than he had in his whole life before. You should be warned: if you are invited to the farmer's dinner table, don't accept too many helpings. Food is not plentiful, and because the Irish are hospitable, the bustling housewife may have cooked most of the week's supply of meat.
US War Office Pocket Guide

Although the tone may be slightly patronising, "the bustling housewives" were probably appreciative, and the "Yanks" did not appear condescending to the locals, just naturally expansive and generous. Joe O'Loughlin of Belleek recalls his experiences with these early troops. He now owns one of the oldest Shell stations in the British Isles but then he was observing life from the viewpoint of a ten-year-old.

I remember that none of us children in town had ever seen a jeep before, and here came all these American soldiers in jeeps. They drove up to the school to greet the children, they were always very generous, giving us sweets, but there was never anything of charity about it, they were just kind.
Joe O 'Loughlin

The Yanks themselves were aware of the disparity in the distribution of the food.

15 May 1942 - Northern Ireland

Just got my weekly ration of beer, coke, cigars, candy, peanuts, tobacco and gum. What a bellyache I'd have if I took them all at once! Our army's pretty good to us to bring these things all the way from the States. Our food is good, too. We're probably the best-fed people in Europe. For dinner I had pork chops, sweet potatoes, beets, corn, fruit salad, pickles, apple butter, jam, rock candy, bread and coffee. Not bad for a soldier 3,000 miles from home.
From the letters of Bob Reed

But the guide had cautioned the men against feeling in any way superior because of this largesse.

They may expect you to brag about New York's big buildings. Don't do it. There are Irishmen who emigrated to the United States as boys and who have returned, near the end of their lives, to the little villages they left long ago. Some of them are unpopular because they talk about sky scrapers, express highways, modern plumbing; they boast about the wonders they have seen and shared. The Irish, being proud people, resent comparisons in which Ireland seems to come off second best.
US War Office Pocket Guide

In fact, Bob Reed found much in Northern Ireland that was instructive.

5 June 1942 - Northern Ireland

Yesterday I had a very pleasant bicycle ride on a footpath alongside a river for several miles. Saw several pairs of wild swans with their little fleets of cygnets following along behind. It's something we would take to heart back home. In a country as thickly populated as this, where hundreds of people pass them by every week, the swans are still safe from marauders, and add a lot to the scenery. Stopped to talk with some men who claimed that I was looking at the largest linen and thread factory in the world. They happened to mention the word "boogie-man", and told me that over here it means a fellow who unloads sacks of coal from the barges that come up the river.
From the letters of Bob Reed

But what one man found appealing another might find problematic. This was the case with Roy Murray and golf. Colonel Roy Murray would become one of the true heroes of the Second World War. From August 1942 when he led the first US soldiers into battle in the Dieppe raid, through the invasions of North Africa, the fierce fighting in Tunisia, and the horrors of the Italian campaign, Roy Murray distinguished himself not only by his bravery but by his concern for his men. During March to June 1942 the young Captain Murray from Walnut Creek, Califonia, was stationed at Castlerock. His air of daring befitted a man who had flown one of the first air mail routes along the coast of California. Golf, however, led him to an early defeat.

We were stationed at Castlerock, a very nice sea coast resort town, with the 133rd lnfantry. 1 met the pastor's daughter, she wanted to know if I played golf, and I stupidly said "Yes". We went out on the links one day, and she beat me. I thought, "Okay". So we went out again, and she beat me again. Of course, I blame it all on the wind there, coming in from the sea, and I had a hook to begin with, or a slice, and the slice really developed with that wind. So I wasn't sure of the hospitality of Castlerock at that time.
Roy Murray

Although the pocket guide mentions golf, it places more emphasis on another form of recreation.

The male social center in Ulster is the tavern or public house. While there are temperance advocates and a few prohibitionists in Ireland, you won't see much of them. Irish whiskey is famous, but the price is now so high that you will find most people drink stout, ale and porter, which they call "beer". The American-type beer (which is, of course, really German type) comes only in bottles and is known as "lager".

Up in the hills you may be offered an illicit concoction known as "poteen". This is a moonshine whiskey made out of potato mash. Watch it. It's dynamite. The beer and ale served in the "pubs" is usually heavier and stronger than ours. Don't expect ice-cold drinks. The Irish, like Europeans generally, are accustomed to drinks served at room temperature. They like them that way.
US War Office Pocket Guide

So Roy Murray has only himself to blame for the defeat he suffered from another Northern Ireland native.

We also went into Coleraine. We were always looking for good watering places and to see if there were any girls in town. Somehow, we always ended up at Mary's Bar, where we had something called Coleraine whiskey. I'm sure they made it the night before so the revenuers would never get it. And I managed to lose my voice twice in that bar - and 11m not that talkative. The bar was right around the town hall. That was the main part of town, where they had the dances the whole time. We were doing intelligence work at Mary's Bar.
Roy Murray

Chuck Leighton and his engineers found themselves in Coleraine, too. Though diary keeping was forbidden as a security risk, Leighton still recorded his thoughts. When he returned fifty years later, he read from its pages.

We ended up in Coleraine, in an old brick building, and we found out it was a brewery. We had all the equipment for the regiment; the rest of the regiment hadn't arrived yet - so we needed a place to store all the equipment. The brewery itself had been abandoned, and used by the British soldiers to start with. But they did have one of the storage places full of the old whiskey that was still curing.

We were the first troops to arrive in town, and the people accepted us with open arms. There were a lot of parties, a lot of dances, the churches put on parties - and we met some very nice people there. I met one young girl whose father was a sergeant major, and her girl friend and three or four of us went out together and they were always busy doing something there for us, and taking us into all the activities.
Chuck Leighton

Ray Rodriguez from lowa was also stationed in the Castlerock-Coleraine area. He and his brother Jesse lived in adjacent houses right on the water's edge. Both men grew to know the small resort town well. Ray particularly remembered a tea room. He went there first because he was too young for the pubs, but then because of the kindness of the girl whose name he never forgot - Audrey Love. In 1992 he brought his wife back to show her Castlerock and recalled the young girl he had known so long ago.

Her mother owned the tea room. In the afternoon when things were slow Audrey would sit on one of the two benches in front of the tea room. When I got off in the afternoon I would walk over. Once she invited me to have a cup of tea. Another time we went for a walk with her dogs along the beach and over the golf course. We were just friends, but I never forget her.
Ray Rodriguez

Audrey and her husband had retired to Castlerock and a reunion took place.

I was just a schoolgirl but I remember the Americans coming here to Castlerock. I don't remember individuals. It was a surprise when Ray came to see me. I couldn't believe that he remembered my name, remembered Audrey Love after all these years.
Audrey Love

But there was another person Ray longed to find, another young girl from Castlerock who had gone on walks with his brother Jesse.

There was a girl who worked in the Golf Hotel in Castlerock. She lived outside of town in a place called Kern Cottage, I think. But I can't remember her name. I would really like to find her. Jesse left here and went to North Africa with the invasion. That's where I was. I went up to see him. We were living down on the beach in nice cabins - summer houses. But Jesse's outfit was up on a rocky hill in tents. When I got up there Jesse was asleep. I pulled on his boot to wake him and he jumped up ready to fight. That was the last time I saw him. He was wounded in Italy at Casino. He was hurt bad. They got him back to the States but he was hit in the spine. He died in the hospital. Castlerock - the Clifden Tea House, the Golf Hotel - these were the last places we were happy together.
Ray Rodriguez

Milburn Henke's return to Northern Ireland also reminded him of lost comrades.

I had so many of my friends killed right beside me in North Africa. When you have something like that, it's a strong sentiment in your heart that you feel. Being here brings it all back. We went to Londonderry and then down to Dungannon; we kind of got around. When you're young, you've got a little money in your pockets, we didn't know that we'd be around the next day, so we might as well spend it! I think the Northern Ireland economy took a pretty good boost about that time.
Milburn Henke

When Chuck Leighton returned to walk the streets of Coleraine, similar thoughts came to him.

We had about 109 or 110 guys in there at the time. Seeing that old brewery brings back feelings because of the guys. So many of them aren't around now. It's kind of sad. The things we did there and the good times we had in Coleraine, I'll never forget that. The people had their arms open to us. We went to their churches, we went to their dances, and they treated us just like we were one of them. Seeing all this brings back a lot of good memories and a lot of sad memories. The sad memories, I guess, are because the faces aren't around any more of the boys that I knew. I left them here a month or so later, and I joined the Rangers. But I remember them, the 109th Engineers. They were all boys that I went to college with, that I grew up with in my home town and other towns in South Dakota. The memories come back. So many of them aren't around any more. Many of them didn't make it through the war. I think of them and I think of the good times we had in Coleraine.
Chuck Leighton

Chuck Leighton left the 109th Engineers to volunteer for a new unit, a first-ever experiment for the United States Army - the Rangers. It would be modelled on the Commandos. They would become famous as Darby's Rangers, one of the most decorated units of the Second World War. But in June 1942, as one by one men left Lough Erne and Coleraine and Castlerock and Holywood to apply to be part of the new entrerprise, the future was uncertain.

Roy Murray, Joe Larkin, Chuck Leighton, Ray Rodriguez and Bob Reed knew that golf games, long afternoon walks, beaches and cygnet swans would be memories - images they would keep for fifty years and perhaps provide some relief from the brutal realities ahead.