Secret Missions

Mary Pat Kelly

THE FIRST AMERICANS TO TAKE part in the war effort in Northern Ireland were not soldiers or sailors but construction workers and technicians who came to build bases and dredge out harbours and establish the huge airbase at Langford Lodge. How the US believed the presence of thousands of Americans could remain a secret is a mystery, of course, to the people who watched the work progress. Still, the men were civilians and the United States could still claim neutrality. However, in May 1941, the first Americans in uniform came to Northern Ireland - three young navy flyers. One of them was Leonard "Tuck" Smith from Higginsville, Missouri. He would become the first American to make a significant contribution to victory. But he kept his heroic action a secret for fifty years. In 1992 Tuck returned to tell his tale.

"My grandfather fought in our American Civil War. The threads of his uniform are my most prized possession and now my grandchildren will have this and they'll love it", Tuck Smith told the people gathered in front of Belleek pottery in the small town on the shores of Lough Erne. He was referring to a one-of-a-kind Belleek Parian China plate hand-painted by Pauline O'Hara, a Belleek artist, presented to Tuck Smith and his wife, Loretta, in gratitude for his service in the Second World War. The plate showed a Catalina flying boat heading up into the clouds to elude flak coming from Germany's great battleship, the Bismarck. At the controls was Tuck Smith, a young US ensign having the adventure of his life, even though he was not supposed to be there. Tuck had spotted the battleship that had eluded the RAF. He would stay with her until the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy converged to sink the Bismarck.

But this was 26 May 1941, six months before the US officially entered the war. The young US Navy ensign had taken off from the RAF flying boat base in Castle Archdale on Lough Erne at 3.30 am. He was acting as co-pilot to Flying Officer Dennis Briggs of the Royal Air Force. Smith was on loan to the British by the US Navy in order to check out the pilots who would fly the Catalina flying boats given by the United States to the RAF, under the Lease-Lend programme. The big seaplanes could fly for ten to twelve hours, and so were particularly suited to the Atlantic coastal patrols so essential to the protection of the North American merchantships.

Although the Sunderland flying boats built at Shorts in Belfast were to form the backbone of the force, Winston Churchill had asked President Roosevelt for the Catalinas. The loan of US Navy pilots presented yet another problem. In May 1941 the United States was still neutral. Members of the US Congress and segments of the public still thought it might be possible to avoid entanglement in this "European War". To send American military personnel directly into the combat risked an international incident, and if discovered would give ammunition to Roosevelt's enemies at home. "If Congress finds out", Roosevelt told the Navy fliers, "I will be impeached."

But Smith had come. Now he would be the first American military man to contribute significantly to a Second World War victory. The Bismarck, Germany's mightiest weapon, was racing away from her pursuers headed for the open seas and the Atlantic shipping lanes. If the battleship joined the U-boats and surface raiders who were sinking merchant shipping, almost at will, the Germans could send the food, medicine, fuel and materials that enabled Britain to flght on alone to the bottom of the sea. With her lifeline to North America cut, Britain would have to surrender.

The battle had begun when the German submarine U-30 sank the Athenia, a British passenger steamship on 3 September 1939. The navies of Britain and France were not prepared for war. They had few ships that could serve as escort vessels for the merchant ships. The U-boats formed Wolf packs that invaded the Atlantic and destroyed 1,017 ships between 1939 and 1941. A thousand other ships were lost to German surface raiders, aircraft and mines. The RAF coastal command faced the enemy without the airplanes necessary for anti-submarine operations. With the fall of France, Hitler began a concentrated bombing of Britain and massed his armies across the Channel. Invasion was weeks away. Belfast felt the fury of the Luftwaffe in April when the city suffered one of the worst nights of the Blitz. Then the Bismarck sank the Hood, the warship that was the pride of the British navy. Fourteen hundred men died. The British were stunned. When the Bismarck miraculously escaped the British ships shadowing her and headed for the open sea, defeat seemed certain.

The coastal command base on Lough Erne joined a desperate search for the battleship. The great expanse of the North Atlantic was divided into sections by the Operations office at RAF Aldergrove. Tuck Smith, Dennis Briggs and the eight other members of the crew of the Catalina of the 209th Squadron took off from Lough Erne. It was about 10.30 am when Smith looked down through the fog and saw the great battleship. "First there was great excitement", Smith said. "Gee, we were sent out to look for it, there it is! But a few minutes later, they were shooting like hell at us. Then you have feelings of holy terror." But the men "stayed on station" for five hours, keeping the Bismarck in sight until the Royal Navy and RAF gathered to sink the ship. But no one knew the role the young American played in this historic defeat of Germany's great sea weapon. "I will be impeached", Roosevelt had said, so the only gesture Smith allowed himself was a quick buzz of the Lough Erne bases on his return.

But in the yard of Belleek Pottery, itself a part of history, Tuck Smith with his wife, Loretta, could finally accept a gift of thanks. He would keep the plate that captured his great moment for his grandchildren. Indeed, all stories told in this section are meant as gifts "for the grandchildren". For many of the people standing in the courtyard the war remained a vivid memory. They had heard the Sunderlands and the Catalinas take off from Lough Erne on their Atlantic patrol. They remembered the sinking of the Bismarck, the arrival of US troops, the roll-call of battles in places such as Dunkirk and Dieppe, Sicily and Salerno, Omaha Beach and Sante Marie Eglise. Remargerten Forest and the Battle of the Bulge are part of the fabric of their own lives. For their children and grandchildren, however, the names do not evoke the same images.

In the United States, Newsweek magazine found that in 1990, 30 per cent of all seventeen-year-olds could not name the countries the Allies fought in the Second World War. When such immediate history can be so easily lost or so quickly distorted, saving the threads of remembrance becomes even more crucial. The people who remember are with us still. For the men who fought the war, and who have created centres such as the museum at Langford Lodge, devoted to the US Air Force, this season of anniversaries has stirred old memories and inspired stories long left unspoken. Some kept silent because of the pain of remembering combat endured and comrades lost, others because they belonged to a generation that got on with their lives and did not look back.

Everyone had shared similar experiences, so why dwell on the past? The happy times of swing bands and war-time romance also faded as the normality of life took over. Perhaps, too, the self-absorption of later generations translated as disinterest. Whatever the reasons for the delay, the veterans have now come back to join the circle around the fire and finish the tales begun so many years ago. For the people of Northern Ireland who watched 300,000 Americans pass throgh their lives and "often wondered what happened to them", the veterans who reminisce in these pages will represent the GIs they knew as children, met at dances or worked with on the bases, and drank with at the pubs. Not many veterans were bound to secrecy as Tuck Smith was, but all featured in these chapters found that returning to Northern Ireland opened seams of memory. Thus wherever possible they will speak for themselves. Much of the research used to set the scene and place the stories in context comes from the work of lan Henderson, whose determination to have the United States - Northern Ireland Second World War connection remembered made this section possible.

Many groups in Northern Ireland are devoted to similar efforts and are duly mentioned. However, Tuck Smith was the first American to make such a dramatic individual contribution during his first visit to Belfast, and then to Fermanagh, and he tells much of the story. During the fiftieth anniversary of the sinking of the Bismarck, Tuck had returned to participate in an airshow hosted by the Ulster Aviation Society, and met with men who had flown for the RAF. A year later Tuck took his wife, Loretta, to tour, in his words, "beautiful Lough Erne - The most beautiful runway in the world". Tuck Smith first spoke to the people who might remember him via Sean Rafferty's BBC radio programme. The popular talk-show host had invited Tuck Smith because of the response he had received on an earlier show about the Gl presence in Northern Ireland.

When I talked to some people about the Americans arriving on my radio show a few months back, I had no idea there would be such a fantastic response. Everybody who rang in remembered events of the 1 940s with such clarity that they said it could have been yesterday. They remembered all the Americans who had come here, the Gls, remembered the names of people; they remembered the street names, they remembered the street numbers, they remembered the buses they took. The picture was there as if it were yesterday. And I must say, I think everybody has heen amazed at the response there's been and at the affection for the GIs here, and, I'm glad to say, affection from the Gls still for this funny little part of the world. People like Tuck Smith, as far as I am concerned, have appeared as a piece of living history.
Sean Rafferty
Tuck Smith told his story over the air waves for the first time.
Our country had passcd the Lease-Lend programme, in which we agreed to lend some aircraft to Great Britain. Our president sent over his Mr Donovan, who was later the head of our Secret Service, OSS, and asked Mr Churchill, "What can we do to help?" The Prime Minister said, "Right now I need some pilots to show our pilots how to fly these new Catalinas we're getting." The word came out to the fleet saying, "We're looking for volunteers". My commanding officer told me I was a volunteer! I was a secret when I was sent over in 1941. Ostensibly I was to help train some Royal Air Force pilots, on the lease-lend planes. The particular aircraft involved were Catalina flying boats. These aircraft were primarily designed for reconnaissance and submarine warfare. They were sold to the country, but the pilots weren't. The RAF pilots were very qualified pilots, but on a new aircraft they needed somebody to show them which button to push. That was our job, but I also went out on patrols. The Bismarck sunk the Hood a week or so earlier. The Prime Minister had ordered an all-out search to find it, destroy it; I joined the search. I think the credit had never been given, but it really should have been given to the Operations officer at Aldergrove, who devised a search plan that told us where to Iook.
Tuck Smith
Tuck went on to describe the discovery of the Bismarck in a reluctant, rather matter of fact way; it was not until he was standing above Lough Eme looking down at the watery way that led him to his adventure that some of the emotional overtones of the experience came out. Tuck Smith and Loretta found themselves part of history come to life when they watched Pauline O'Hara preparing the hand-painted plate which would be presented to them at the ceremony on the following day.
I'm making this plate as a presentation piece to Tuck Smith. And believe it or not, Tuck is actually in there, but I don't think you can see him. Even though I have worked here for fifteen years, following in the footsteps of my parents, my cousins and uncles, painting this plate was one of the greatest challenges I have faced. There's always something personal that you put into it, but it's quite exciting to actually meet the person involved. I make a special mark on the back to show that I was the one that made it. I hope that Mr and Mrs Smith will pass this plate down. I feel I'm part of the Belleek tradition and know what it is to value the past.
Pauline O'Hara
Tuck complimented Pauline on the plate, but found one thing missing: "That's a marvellous picture, but the only problem is that you haven't got how scared I was." During a lively reception complete with 1940s music, hosted by John Maguire, managing director of Beleek, other residents of the Lough Erne area spoke to Tuck and shared their own memories of a time when there was great excitement but apprehension too. The laconic American responded to the enthusiasm and for perhaps the first time acknowledged his great adventure.
It was tremendous to have Tuck down for such a memorable occasion. Tuck has tremendous stories to tell. I've been listening to some of his stories, and they're absolutely amazing. A very brave man. The painting on the plate shows Tuck flying overhead the Bismarck. Unfortunately, at this stage, the Bismarck has spotted Tuck, and there are a few shots heading in the direction of the plane. Even though all this happened before I was born, somehow preparing the plate and looking at it made it much more real.
John Maguire
Others who had no personal memory of the Second World War also had found a connection. For John Potter, a young aviation enthusiast dedicated to commemorating the contributions of the airmen who had come to Lough Erne, his link to the past was through his father.
The first person who spoke to me about flying boats was my father. He used to tell me, and he still does tell me, how the flying boats would take off in the early hours of the morning from Lough Erne, and he'd hear them. It was a similar take-off, at early morning, that led to Tuck's flight when he found the Bismarck. I made a small presentation to him, to remember another flight which took off but unfortunately didn't return. There was a Catalina called JX-242 which crashed on the shores of Lough Erne, and which my group are now recovering. I gave Tuck some radio parts from the aircraft.
John Potter
Ernie Cromie had come from Belfast for the occasion. As head of the Ulster Aviation Society, he had studied all aspects of the Second World War air war and could put Tuck Smith's exploits in context.

Tuck Smith, of course, was probably the first American flyer to come to Northern Ireland during the Second World War, but he was the first of many. Quite a number of them actually came to Northern Ireland before America officially entered the war after Pearl Harbour. For example, the Royal Air Force formed a number of squadrons to accommodate American volunteer pilots. And there were about 240 Americans who volunteered for service with the Royal Air Force during the war. The One Hundred and Thirty-Third Squadron, known as the Eagle Squadron, came to Northern Ireland in October 1941 and remained until the end of that year, and were based at Royal Air Force Eglinton, which is an airfield near Derry. Some men in that squadron became quite famous. Don Gentile, for example, saw service not only during the Second World War, but also in Korea, where he was tragically killed. Some of these Eagle pilots, as they were known, are still alive today, people like Charles Cook and Bud Wolf, who served at Eglinton.

After Pearl Harbour, of course, a very large number of Americans came here with the United States Army Air Force. Again, Eglinton featured rather interestingly in that respect; early in the war, the plan was that the American Army Air Force would become responsible for the fighter defence of Northern Ireland. Two fighter groups, the 52nd and 82nd Fighter Group, came to Eglinton to initiate that particular aspect of things. In the event, the plans were changed, and it was decided that the Royal Air Force should continue to be responsible for the fighter defence of Northern Ireland. But following the 52nd and 82nd Fighter groups in the latter part of 1942 came a massive American build-up. There were two aspects to this, essentially. The first one was training. Six airfields in Northern Ireland were handed over to the United States Army Air Force for the training of both heavy bombardment and medium bombardment crews. The other aspect was maintenance and modifica tion of aircraft. The airfield that was very significant in this respect was Langford Lodge, where the Lockheed Overseas Corporation, in conjunction with the United States Army Air Force, ran a very important repair and modification centre.
Ernie Cromie

The cause of preservation of air history in Northern Ireland was enhanced when Bill Walters retired from his post at the Imperial War Museum to reside in Fermanagh. He was at Belleek to meet Tuck Smith.
I was employed at the RAF Museum as a research assistant, and I've recently come over to Northern Ireland and joined the Lough Erne Aviation Society. They were into researching the war effort in Northern Ireland from 1939 to 1945. Northern Ireland was very important during the war years, because the coastal command squadrons of the Royal Air Force did their anti-submarine flying, both land planes and sea planes, from the Northern Ireland bases, of which there are twenty-three air force stations in Northern Ireland, a few of which remain open today . for flying. The American units were mostly combat replacement units for the Eighth and Ninth Air Force in England, and providing replacement crews for the ones flying missions over Germany. The RAF crews sank I would think between twelve and fourteen U-boats during the period of about 1941 to 1945. There were two Canadian squadrons based on Lough Erne with Sunderland flying boats, and they sank about eight U-boats. This was an important place for the U-boat war.
Bill Walters
Among the people that came to greet Tuck Smith was an American air force veteran who had served in Belleek during the war and now had returned to spend the rest of his life in Fermanagh.
It was about the last of November 1942 when I first landed in Northern Ireland. We went out to Langford Lodge, that's where I was first stationed. Then I was stationed over at Portadown, the headquarters of the Eighth Air Force, then on to Belleek on 6 or 7 September 1943. I wound up here in Cleary's Hotel. Well, I stayed there at Cleary's Hotel with Desmond and Mary Cleary and Miss Amanda. I went back to the US in 1945, but in 1969 I came back. l had always had good memories of this country. I've always liked this country, so I came back and I'll live here for the rest of my life. Boy, I guess I'm just about as happy as I could be.
John Kraft
Frank Garvin was a young teenager when the Americans arrived but he could still remember their names, and indeed their arrival had a direct influence on his life.
The Americans descended on Belleek in 1942. It was quite strange to all the local people, who had never seen an American serviceman in uniform before. They commandeered the hotel in Belleek for a base, and also a premises to the rear of the hotel.

Now, the object of the exercise was that they were going to start a radio facility about three miles out the road from Belleek at Magheramena. The radio facility was to bring aircraft safely from the United States, on a beam. The airmen picked up a beam and honed across the Atlantic on it. They didn't want to be in radio communication with a base here in England or in the United States, because that could be picked up by the Germans. This radio beam gave a signal. They just kept to the beam. That brought them safely across from America.

There was one particular character who was around here, Speedy Jones was his name, and he came from North Dakota. He bought a horse, and he often rode the horse to the radio station. He used to bring it to Cleary's Hotel, where they were based - he used to bring the horse into the bar. He'd take a large basin and pour Guinness into it and give it to the horse! And I greatly enjoyed this, because nobody had ever seen this before.

There were other charaters then. I remember a sergeant. The lady in the hotel used to say to him, "Now, I'll introduce you to some nice girls." And he used to say, "I don't want to know nice girls. I want to know bad girls!" He was the master sergeant in the unit, and he was here with the Americans until the end of the war.

For a short time right after V-E day he was replaced by another sergeant, called Sergeant Atkinson, who at one stage took a jeep into Bundaron, that's across the border; I would say that's a breach of inter national law to take a military vehicle across a border. But everyone was fairly relaxed in those days, and the war had just finished, and he was escorted back with a guard and told not to do it again. But even during wartime the Americans used to go across to Ballyshannon in County Donegal to drink. Drink was more available in Ballyshannon than it was in Northern Ireland then because of rationing. Spirits were certainly more available. They'd also go to Bundoran, because Bundoran had a tourist season starting about May and finishing about September, so there was always a lot of entertainment there: dancing and that sort of thing. Belleek was quiet, so Bundoran was the place to go.

Strictly speaking, none of the forces were supposed to cross the border. But the way they would get around that was they would get a civilian overcoat and put it over the uniform, and not bother putting on a cap or a hat. The guard on the other side of the border didn't make any remarks at all. They'd just give them a free hand. The people of Donegal were well disposed towards the forces of the United States and all, and enjoyed their company. The girls were entranced by the GIs, as they were known in those days. Quite a few marriages eventually developed from relationships in the Belleek area. An Italian married a girl who lived about three miles from the village. Phil Callahan, another American, married a girl called McGee. You see, they were well away from the war here.

The method of transport used between base and operations station was the "Willy" jeep or army wagon. The jeep was a very basic vehicle and not designed for comfort. It had a bucket-type seating with the bare minimum of cushioning, canvas roof and usually open sides but there were canvas sides that could be attached to each side of the vehicle to protect the occupants from the elements. The army wagon was still a utility vehicle but it was enclosed and provided more comforts for its occupants.

The US forces had more luxuries than their British counterparts. The US forces had ample supplies of sweets and chocolate, and an added bonus of nylon stockings which attracted all the young ladies in the area; because of "rationing", items of this nature were not available or if so on a very limited basis. American servicemen were also better paid than their British counterparts due, of course, to the rate of exchange which was much in favour of the US dollar.

I remember when the Catalinas flew over Belleek, headed out on the "Donegal Corridor". That was a sixteen-mile corridor between Leitrim and Donegal, which was granted by the Irish government, and the aircraft had to stay within that corridor. The patrol missions were quite long at times, sometimes consisting of eighteen hours. We could recognise the aircraft by the noise. We would recognise a Sunderland; you would recognise a Catalina. A Sunderland was a four-engine aircraft, a Catalina was a twin-engine aircraft. I was only just over seventeen at the time, and then when I was eighteen I went off to the RAF myself.
Frank Garvin

Joe O'Loughlin, the owner of the Shell petrol station in Belleek, had been a child of ten when the Americans came marching in. He has since become a local historian, an expert on the history going back to medieval times. 8ut when he greeted Tuck Smith and Loretta on a sunny autumn morning, it was early 1942 that was most on his mind.
As soon as anything happened we'd be on our bikes out to investigate. I remember a plane had crashed and they brought the plane somewhere near Belleek. We all came up on our bikes to watch as the pieces were put in the policeman's yard; he was to guard it until the authorities came to pick it up the next morning. I remember my father and the policeman playing cards all night guarding the plane. But we sneaked into the cockpit. What battles we fought that night! Sometimes, too, there would be a crash on the other side of the border in Donegal, just a few miles from Belleek; they would bring the bodies of the Allied crews to the border. I remember watching, it was very solemn. The Irish army would provide a military honour guard. At the border they would present arms and then turn their rifles upside down. The American army would be represented on the other side and would receive the bodies and drape the coffins with American flags. The feeling was very serious and sad; most of the men in the Irish army were country fellows and they had a great respect for the dead. We all felt a connection with the Americans; most people had an uncle or cousin, someone in America, and so these deaths were felt.
Joe O'Loughlin
Samuel Potter, who had inspired his son John's interest in aviation, had a very direct role in honouring the downed Allied flyers as an official of the Church in Irvinestown. He participated in their funerals and even today helps maintain the graves that cluster together in a small country churchyard planted with rose bushes and lined with white stone crosses.
I remember once when an entire crew was lost and we held the funeral for them here in the church in Irvinestown; they were all young men and on their gravestones their friends and families had sentiments engraved. One says "Goodnight, sweet Prince, may flights of angels guide you to your rest", and then there are some that say simply "An airman of the Second World War known only to God."
Samuel Potter
Before Tuck Smith left Lough Erne he dedicated a cross, high up in the mountains, to the men who had lost their lives in the squadrons which had flown from Killadeas and Castle Archdale. These men, downed by anti-aircraft fire or simply lost in the fogs that can cover the countryside without warning, had been Tuck Smith's comrades. Perhaps the American flyer had kept silent about his own heroic actions as a kind of testimony to them. But now, as the solemn notes of a piper rose from a heather edged mountain lake, Tuck Smith joined his story with theirs, assured that the people of Fermanagh would always remember the young airmen who guarded them half a century ago.