The Yanks are Coming

Most Americans are surprised to discover that the first US soldiers to enter the Second World War landed in Northern Ireland. The attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 quickly ended the two years of neutrality and the United States entered the war. America had no large standing army as such; many of the first troops to be called were from the Mid-Western reserve units. Charles Leighton recalls that he entered the army reserve when his brother told him that if he went to reserve meetings at his South Dakota college he would earn a dollar a month. Therefore, when the mobilisation took place, he and the other young men from small towns in Iowa and South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin found themselves part of the US Army and on their way to what was assumed to be a quick invasion of Europe. Northern Ireland was thought to be a stopping-off point on the route to France; however, this was not to be. On 26 January 1942 the 34th "Red Bull" Division began arriving on two transport ships: the Chateau Thierry and the Stratford. Leighton was a member of the 119th Engineers. Now retired and living in San Diego, he remembers the voyage vividly. It took him from a life that combined college with outdoor pursuits - hunting and fishing - in the South Dakota wilderness.

On I January, we headed out on a train for New York City, and then over to Fort Dix. We debarked from Fort Dix in the middle of January. We ended up on the old boat Chateau Thierry in Brooklyn Navy Yard, not knowing that we were on the first troop ship to go to Europe or the British Isles. We didn't know where we were going. We got out in the ocean and were accompanied by the aircraft carrier Wasp and battleship New Mexico, a cruiser, and there was another cruise ship along side us as we started out - that was called the Stratford. The Chateau was an old cattle boat from the First World War. The sailors there kidded us about that. It was an old riveted ship, and it wasn't one of the modern day vessels that they welded together.

We came over across the ocean in about fifteen days. We hit some storms. A sub came up in our convoy one day, and the cruiser took care of that. We came into town. We didn't even know where it was. Rumours got around that it was over in Ireland someplace, and we ended up in Belfast. We pulled up into the harbour and got on two troop ships. Corvettes, I think they are called, the little British ships. We stayed in the harbour all night.

Then we pulled up to the dock, and we just started unloading. Several of us just got in line and walked off the gangplank, not knowing that we were the first troops that actually were on the dock. Later that afternoon, the other ship came in and docked on the other side and unloaded - and we stood there alongside and watched them unload. We didn't think much about it, but there were quite a few people down there at the docks. They were cheering and a band was playing.

We marched down and got on the train, and ended up in a camp, I would say five or six miles out of Londonderry. We could all look down on the bay. We were billeted in British Quonset huts. And I happened to notice a picture that was in the paper. When I got home after I was discharged, my mother had saved all the souvenirs from the first troops - and I saw this picture of the arrival. I picked out a few of the buddies that were in the picture. We were standing on the side there, watching these other troops march by. The headline read: "First Troops Arrive in Ireland". And I thought, "Can't be, if they're talking about the guys marching in. We were already there."
Chuck Leighton

An official first American to land in Belfast had to be selected, and the distinction fell to Milburn Henke from Hutchinson, Minnesota, a member of Company B of the 133rd Infantry with the 34th "Red Bull" Division.

I was sitting on some barracks bags, and this colonel came up the gangplank, and there were about fifteen of us. There was a lieutenant there and he said: "I want a man from Company B, 133rd ," and Lieutenant Springer, he turned around: "Henke, you go with him". When I got by the gangplank, General Hartle came to meet me. He said, "Do you think you can talk over a radio?" And I said, "Well, if I have to, I think I can."
Milburn Henke

Though the choice seems to have been made at random (and as Chuck Leighton points out, some of the US troops were already there and greeting Henke), it was a happy one. In many ways Milburn Henke was the quintessential Yank, good looking, easy going, modest; he was the dough boy come back, the small town American who, while not looking for a fight, would see it through to the end. When Milburn Henke and his wife, Iola, returned fifty years later, they continued to project the values of an older America. Henke took his mission to represent all the troops that arrived in Northern Ireland that winter very seriously.

At the rededication of the Memorial for US troops in Belfast on 14 September 1994, he read a letter from the present commander of the 34th Infantry Division and another from the governor of Minnesota. The Lord Mayor of Belfast and the chaplain of the city stood by while Henke, in a cap decorated with the insignia of his service, read greetings to the people of Belfast. "Lord Mayor", he began; then his eyes searched the crowd: "Any veterans?" When he said those words some heads nodded among the crowd gathered in front of the city hall; there were men who had served and there were also women who remembered the day the Yanks arrived. They listened intently as Henke began.

Lord Mayor, any veterans, friends. First I wish to read the letter of greeting and comments from Major General David H. Lee, Commander of the 34th Division, Minnesota National Guard.

"Dear Veterans and Guests: This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the United States of America soldiers arriving in Europe for the Second World War. Many Minnesotans were there, and among them was Milburn Henke of Hutchinson. The world has drastically changed since that time. I believe that unity for peace has brought these changes. I commend each soldier who served our cause during that heroic period. This memorial stone signifies the American soldier's dedication to freedom throughout the world. The stone stands for strength, which was shown by the soldiers who were there fifty years ago. In closing, I am proud of the American soldiers and the sacrifices they made. I sincerely appreciate the support and understanding of their families, and I also appreciate the efforts of our allies. Peace will come if we work together. Thank you, and God bless. Sincerely, David H. Lee, Major General, Minnesota Army National Guard, Commanding Officer."

When Company B, the 133rd Infantry Regiment, 34th Division, led the first troops ashore here, a little over fifty years ago, little did we know what the future would bring. Over 300,000 troops followed with their formal training, undoubtedly causing many changes and disruptions in the lives of the local people. But they managed to cope with the inconveniences. We were welcomed by the government and by an unbelievable friendliness of the people, just ordinary people from the farms, labourers, businessmen, clerks and what have you. These people were exactly the same as each of us who came in uniform. We, too, were farmers, businessmen, common labourers, high school graduates, college graduates, rich and poor alike. We appreciated our acceptance here. Of those thousands that landed with me that first day, hundreds were not privileged to return to their homes and loved ones. Of the 300,000 that followed, thousands more did not get this privilege. It is to their memory we make this dedication, and to the memory of all those the good Lord allowed to come home and live out their lives, presumably in hope and in peace. Thank you.
Milburn Henke

The Lord Mayor's chaplain, a man who remembers the war years, responded to Milburn's words.

The arrival of the United States of America's expeditionary force was a turning point in the war. And, indeed, without them, without the hundreds of thousands who came after them, the war could well have taken a different turn. And we are very grateful for the sacrifice that was made by all of those people. And I think today, fifty years on, we especially remember those who did not return to their native land, those who made the supreme sacrifice. We remember them, we remember their friends, their children, their relatives, and we give thanks for what they've done. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
Dean Shearer

Among the people watching the ceremony was a woman about the same age as the Henkes. As the television cameras surrounded Milburn Henke and reporters asked him for comments, this woman approached Iola; soon they were talking intently and then Iola brought her over to introduce her to Milburn. She explained why she had come to the ceremony.

It's brought me back right to that time, 1941 and 1942, when the Yanks came to Belfast. The girls went mad; I was married in 1941, I got my sailor. But I used to say, "Oh, I wish I had waited. I would have gone for a Yank." It's as real as yesterday. Because when we look back, it's not really fifty years ago. It's just like yesterday. I think the streets should have been packed with people that really went through the Blitz and through the hard times, and the bombing and everything else. The courage that the Americans brought! The hope, it was tremendous, it was! And it was lovely. And then they were gone, just waving bye-bye after breaking somebody's heart.

Later Milburn and Iola Henke met Alderman Alex Beggs, a councillor from Carrickfergus, ten miles north of Belfast on the shores of Belfast Lough. He remembered the arrival of the Americans as a teenage boy.

In January 1942, I was a fifteen-year-old boy working for a company, a builder's merchant in Belfast. On that particular day, I was sent to Belfast Docks to contact one of our employees, our dock foreman. I was a very small boy on a bicycle, I had never been on Belfast Docks before. I didn't know very much about it. I had very sketchy instructions about how to find the place I was looking for. But I was surprised when I reached the docks to find how difficult it was to get into them. There was such a massive amount of security. I had a permit to get onto the docks, but the policemen involved were a bit doubtful. I presume at the end of the day they thought that a small fifteen-year-old boy on a bicycle couldn't do anybody very much harm, and they let me onto the docks. But every fifty or hundred yards after that, I kept being stopped by more policemen or more military policemen asking me what my business was. Well, the life was frightened out of me.

But I didn't know the docks. It took me a long time to orientate myself. Eventually, I saw this ship with a lot of soldiers coming from it. The uniform at the time wasn't all that different from a British soldier's uniform. They wore the same khaki uniforms, they wore the First World War-style helmets. But I watched them for a while, and I realised that there was something odd about it. The only part of their uniform that was, I suppose, odd to me was the fact that they wore gaiters or leggings of some sort that buttoned right up to their knees, which was entirely different from the British style.

Listening to some of the dockers around, I realised eventually that they were probably Americans. No one seemed to be quite sure, and as I say, security was pretty intense. When I got back to my office, I told the people in the office, and no one quite believed me that these were American soldiers. But when the local newspaper, the Belfast Telegraph, arrived at my house that night, I had the greatest pleasure in telling my mother that I had seen the first GI into Europe. There was a picture of him in the Belfast Telegraph. I told my mother, "I saw him today." Well, I didn't quite see him coming off the boat, but I saw him immediately after he came off the boat. Over the years since (that's fifty years ago now), I often wondered had Private Henke survived the war. I am delighted now to see him here after fifty years.

I remember how we all felt when they arrived! People in Belfast, people all over the country, were absolutely delighted. Bear in mind . that we had been fighting a war almost completely on our own. I don't think it ever occurred to any of us that we were ever going to lose the war. But probably those who knew most about it wondered if we could ever win it. But the Americans came into it on Pearl Harbour Day, 7 December 1941, and here in January 1942, a mere six, seven, eight weeks later, we had the first American troops landing in Europe. And I think from that moment on, we felt that it was impossible to lose the war. We knew we were going to win it. It just doesn't seem fifty years. It doesn't seem possible that it could be fifty years. But when I look at myself in the mirror, I realise it is fifty years. Back in 1942, I had black hair.
Alderman Alex Beggs

Most of the men of military age in Northern Ireland were already serving when the US troops arrived. Some were in North Africa or the Middle East. Many had been part of the evacuation of Dunkirk. George Green, a councillor on the North Down Borough Council, near Belfast and across the lough from Carrickfergus, had been cut off from his unit in France and found himself stranded behind enemy lines. He and his companions hijacked a train and made for the coast. They got a fishing boat to take them across the Channel. His town, Bangor, would become a home port for the battleships Nevada, Arkansas and Texas. The fleet of the D-day invasion would sail from Bangor. But that lay still in the future when Harry Champion would watch the American ships arrive from a vantage point high above Belfast harbour. A wiry man, he fits the movie ideal of a sailor. His eyes are still clear and ocean blue. The elements have weathered his face without eroding his youthful energy or chipping away at his memories.

I was in the Royal Navy, stationed at Belfast Castle, when the Yanks came in to Northern Ireland. We had to go down to the Pollock Dock. They came in and anchored outside, and they were brought up into Pollock Dock with one of the fleet barges. We brought them in. Next thing, the whole place was swarming with them. The American soldiers and sailors and the British sailors and the British airmen were always squabbling with one another and couldn't agree about this and couldn't agree about the other! One day there were two British sailors coming up through High Street in Belfast, and there was a water tank. Two American soldiers who had arrived were leaning against this water tank. They just turned around and said to the two British sailors, "We don't need you here any longer; we'll win the war for you." The two sailors just went by and they stopped all of a sudden, and put their hats on the back of their heads. They just walked back to the American soldiers and caught them and threw them into the water tank. So several of us had to rush and lift them out of the tank before they drowned. The next thing was, the four of them, the two American and the two British sailors, got together and they all went into the pub and spent the rest of the day drinking together.
Harry Champion

The United States War Office had anticipated such incidents. Indeed, they felt the troops would need a kind of military adapted Baedecker/Emily Post to acquaint them with their new allies, the British troops in Northern Ireland, as well as with the people themselves. There was a particular etiquette to be observed when encountering "the Allies".

Don't tell the Britisher that "we came over and won the last one". In the first place, it in't true. Britain lost nearly a million men; America's dead in action totalled a little more than 60,000. Don't boast about what we have done or will do. Let's see how we handle ourselves when the going is really tough.

You carry the greatest source of potential trouble right around with you in your billfold. American wages and American soldier's pay are about the highest in the world. The British soldier is apt to be pretty touchy about the difference between his wages and yours. It is only human nature to wonder why exposure to dying should be quoted at different rates - and such different rates.

Don't be a show off with your pay. It adds up to a lot of money in Ulster, and you won't make any friends by throwing either your money or your weight around. Remember that the private in the British army makes on the average about fifty cents a day, and that, according to our standards, most of the people in Ulster are exceedingly poor. Don't 'be a spendthrift. Don't be a dope.

Let this be your slogan: "It is common decency to treat your friends well; it is a military necessity to treat your allies well."
US War Office Pocket Guide

When the pocket guide turns from the British military to the people of Northern Ireland itself, it assumes an astonishing tone. Clearly written in a colloquial style, it speaks directly to its GI readers. Free of any kind of government jargon or gobbilty gook, it tries to introduce a young American, probably away from home for the first time, to a place and a culture both alien and familiar to him. Many of the arriving troops were of Irish descent, but most of these were second or third generation and had only vague notions of where their ancestors had lived. This was even more true of Americans who traced their lineage to Northern Ireland, because many of their ancestors had arrived in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, so they were even further removed from any real knowledge of the country. Nevertheless, these Irish-Americans felt that in some way they were coming home. The pocket guide understood this and its author began his discussion by pointing out these connections. He both celebrated the special closeness and warned against a too intimate involvement in Northern Irish affairs.

Ireland has sent many gifted and valuable citizens to the United States.

Irishmen from North and South, Protestant and Catholic, began to emigrate to America in early colonial days. Nine generals in the American Revolution were of Irish birth. Four signers of the Declaration of Independence were born in Ireland and four were of Irish descent. Fourteen presidents of the United States have carried the blood of Ireland in their veins.

There are many of you soldiers who are of Irish descent. Some of you Protestants or Catholics may know at first or second hand about the religious and political differences between Northern and Southern Ireland. Perhaps they seem foolish to you. We Americans don't worry about which side our grandfathers fought on in the Civil War, because it doesn't matter now. But these things still matter in Ireland and it is only sensible to be forewarned.

There are two excellent rules of conduct for the American abroad. They are good rules anywhere but they are particularly important in Ireland: (1) don't argue religion; (2) don't argue politics.
US War Office Pocket Guide

Assuming a special relationship between the Americans and the people of Northern Ireland, the author expected the GIs to find more in common with the Irish than with the British soldiers they might encounter. Indeed, the popular impression in the United States reflected this sense of Northern Ireland as a welcoming home away from home. The number one song on the hit parade for 17 March 1942 was "Johnny Doughboy's Found a Rose in Ireland". It would ultimately be recorded by ten different singers and bands. Johnny was a "doughboy" because in the First World War the American fondness for doughnuts earned all Gls the nickname. The friendly voice of the guide, however, could be stern with the Gls about their relationships with the Irish "roses".

Ireland is an Old World country where the woman's place is still, to a considerable extent, in the home. In the cities, to be sure, modern trends and the pressure of the war itself have liberalised social attitudes. But in the rural sections - and it is quite possible you will be billeted in areas that are rural beyond your expectations - the old ideas still exist. Irish girls are friendly. They will stop on the country road and pass the time of day. Don't think, on that account, that they are falling for you in a big way. Quite probably the young lady you're interested in must ask her family's permission before she can go out with you In the old days when a girl was seen in the company of a young man more than two or three times, it was as much as announcing an engagement. Or nearly as much. The couple was said to be "clicking", and the unwritten code demanded that the rest of the girls turn their eyes elsewhere.

If you're interested in dancing, you'll find partners without difficulty in Belfast and the other big towns. You'll hear American popular songs and recordings by American bands. But in the country, dances are comparatively rare, and jive is unknown. Occasionally, however, you may find a rural frolic in progress. The Irish jigs and reels and the "valeta" - a square dance - are strenuous and sweaty fun. One point: cutting-in is frowned upon. Watch the other men and follow their example.
US War Office Pocket Guide

And how did these American soldiers experience the country and its people? Another of the earliest arrivals was Bob Reed of Osewego, New York. He was a medic with a hospital unit. He too watched Milburn Henke march onto the Pollock Docks. His commanding officer was a young doctor fresh from Harvard Medical School. Reed's early days in Belfast were spent waiting for the rest of the unit to arrive. His letters present a picture of a young man bent on discovering all he can of his new setting. In the letters he wrote home, Bob Reed gives a picture of Northern Ireland as seen through the eyes of these first Gls.

28 March 1942 - Northern Ireland

We really are having a wonderful time. The people here are hospitable, and I've a standing invitation at one very nice home. If I don't call on them in less than a week they feel grieved. Yanks are a novelty, of course, and our welcome will probably wear out if we become too numerous, but by that time I expect to have many friends with a few families. Mothers and grandmothers seem to be especially happy if an American soldier pays attention to an unmarried daughter; they say that if you go out with an Irish girl more than three times you're practically engaged, so l will have to watch my step. Mother, didn't your parents come from County Wicklow? I've forgotten the name of the town. But I've talked with some people from Dublin and they say that Wicklow is the most beautiful part of Ireland. The country hereabouts is pretty - fields are greener here than any I've ever seen and the industrial revolution hasn't spoiled Ireland yet. Belfast is a large modern city with theaters, trolleys, buses. Some of their customs amuse us. We pay more to sit upstairs in the theater here, instead of downstairs, as at home. And the trolleys seem to stop at random. If you want to board one, you gallop down the street after it, and jump aboard on the run. A young fellow like myself can outsprint a trolley, but I don't know how the women and children manage. American movies and music are as popular here as at home, and some of the theaters are very good.

We're getting American beer, cigarettes, cigars and candy, of course, not in unlimited quantities. I really admire the army for the way it takes care of us boys. We're the envy of the British soldiers for our natty uniforms. I expect to be able to save money from now on, as it seems superfluous around here. About my only expenses are a bottle of milk, a can of beer, two cigars, cigarettes, and tea and scones (biscuits) twice a day.
From the letters of Bob Reed

In these letters, however, are reminders that there were military preparations going on; sentences are snipped out of Bob Reed's letters by censors who did not mind stories of trams and theatres, but did not allow the Gls to be specific about the work they were doing.

Not working quite so hard as formerly, but have quite a variety of jobs [censored]. I think back to those summer months at Fort Bragg. I wonder how I ever got through them. This is heaven compared to it. Give my love to all the family, and write as frequently as before. I'll ration your letters like everything else - one a week.

The guide would have approved of Bob Reed's attitude. It wanted American military men to enjoy their stay and to appreciate the beauty of the countryside and people. At the same time, the author anticipated the GI's reaction and chided the young man about any "Yank" superiority or insensitivity.

Ulster is a saucer circled by rolling hills. There is the Antrim plateau in the north-east, the Sperrin Mountains in the north-west, the Mourne Mountains in the south-east. If you come from North Carolina, or Colorado, or Idaho, these may not seem much like mountains to you - they rise 3,000 feet at their highest - but their beauty has drawn tourists to Ulster for many years.

On furlough you may want to visit the mountains, or to see Lough Neagh, the largest lake in the British Isles. Another strange and famous landmark is the Giant's Causeway - 40,000 columns of basalt rock which rise from a bay at the northern tip of the island. This is celebrated in legend and story.

There are a good many large estates owned by the wealthy or the once-wealthy, and you will find ancient and turreted castles scattered among the hills and glens, but most of the Irish farmers manage to make their livings on plots of land which Americans, used to tractors and far horizons, would think hardly larger than ample vegetable gardens.
US War Office Pocket Guide

Bob Reed found the scenery more beautiful than even the upstate New York vistas he loved. As he writes to his parents, he can not help comparing and contrasting just as the guide knew he would; but Reed concludes he is better off in Northern Ireland than at home!

12 April 1942 - Northern Ireland

Ireland probably seems a long way off to you, and a little foreign. But I've learned that people and customs here are much the same. Of course, no country in the world has the material comforts America has. Osewego could be set down hereabouts, and not seem too out of place as far as scenery goes, except that Ireland is prettier. It didn't get the name of "Emerald Isle" for nothing. They say the weather is damper, but we have had some days that the Finger Lakes would be hard put to beat. The people, of course, are very friendly to the Yanks. No matter how much they like their homes here, it's their dream to visit America some day. And it's surprising the number of people who have been to the States, or who have relatives there. There are dandy theaters here, and the cinemas aren't more than a few months behind their showing in the States. In fact, I've caught up on a few good ones I missed. The blackout is a novel experience. You bump into something in the dark, apologise to it, and then find out it's only a street lamp. But I'm quite proud of myself in that I have managed so far to do without a flashlight.

We are very comfortably situated in a pretty spot; much pleasanter than those huge soldier-cities on the southern sands in America, where the people are as arid as the desert they live in. My work consists mostly of guard duty - no medical work as yet. I'll have forgotten what little I know about operating-room technique
From the letters of Bob Reed

Before Bob Reed's war was over, he would have occasion to use all the medical techniques he knew. But that was in the future. During the first spring he and the other Americans were experiencing a lull before the storm.