On 2nd March 1942, the second contingent of American Forces arrives at Belfast Docks in Northern Ireland. This event, which brought a larger number of troops ashore, was free from the pomp and grandeur of the earlier arrival of soldiers in January 1942. There was no ceremony, no flag-waving, and no band of the Royal Ulster Rifles providing fanfare.
Newspapers reported that Axis propaganda had told Americans they could never send an Army into Europe. This was just part of the reply. Once again, the grey hulks of transport vessels broke the skyline off the coast of Northern Ireland. Within sight of the coast, vessels from the United States Navy and the Royal Navy relinquished their escort duty. Small tugboats ushered the larger ships towards the quayside, where a small, invited crowd awaited.
Among this crowd was the United States Army’s Major-General Russell P. Hartle. Quartermaster-General Sir Walter King Venning represented the Chief of the Imperial General Staff of the British Army. Also in attendance were Lieutenant-General H.E. Franklyn (General Officer Commanding British Troops in Northern Ireland), the War Office’s Director of Movement, and a representative of Major-General V.H.B. Majendie (General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland District). Air Commodore Harold Spencer Kerby represented the Royal Air Force.
On the decks, soldiers lined the rails of upper decks, peered from portholes, and perched on lifeboats to see where they were to land. The men, described as “husky”, clad in the khaki uniform of the United States Army. Women too stood on deck, in the grey-blue uniform of the American Red Cross, or sporting the blue coats of military nurses.
Onboard the troopships, soldiers and Officers were eager to hear news of the war. They wanted to hear in particular about the exploits of MacArthur. On receiving a copy of a local newspaper, one Captain threatened to charge his soldiers “a dollar a look” as they crowded around.
I’m so glad to get this, I could read it upside down.
Much like the first contingent of American Troops, these soldiers mainly hailed from the Mid-West. They were from Iowa, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Illinois. Having left the Eastern Seaboard of the United States of America, they had guessed at their destination during the crossing. Many, of course, had Irish associations, including a Military Chaplain with an ancestral home in Co. Longford. Among the assembled soldiers were Kells, Flanagans, and O’Reillys.
All on board were in good spirits, and keen to get into the war. Knowing that American Troops were already in Northern Ireland made them feel welcome to their new, albeit temporary, home.
The morale in this ship is just as high as it could be… These boys want to get this thing over so they can get back home.
Among the new arrivals were veterans of The Great War. These older soldiers spoke highly of the next generation of combat-ready soldiers in the United States Army. As they left the quayside, soldiers both young and old exchanged some good-humoured banter with local dockers.
In a marked difference to the arrival of American troops on 26th January 1942, there was a heightened level of secrecy around these distinctly informal events. No civilians were present. Only half-a-dozen members of the press from the United Kingdom and the United States of America were present as Dorrance Mann stepped ashore. He, along with the other soldiers was under instructions to refuse all interviews.
They shared little information beyond their names, ages, occupations, and hometowns. None of them had much to say about the conflict but expressed they were glad to be in Northern Ireland.
Until the moment, soldiers began coming ashore, members of the press had doubts whether they would witness the arrival. British Military Police and the Royal Ulster Constabulary kept a watchful eye on the proceedings.
As they marched onto Northern Ireland soil, many of the new arrivals did not carry rifles. Instead, they carried large blue kitbags and other personal effects. They carried dozens of packets of chocolate and candies, and thousands of cigarettes. One soldier’s kitbag contained 17 bars of soap. The same man reportedly confessed to a reporter from the Belfast Telegraph newspaper that he also carried 56 bars of chocolate and 3,000 cigarettes. Others had even more stowed away, but this soldier claimed to have sustained losses while playing ‘craps’ on the crossing.
Without any pageantry or even marching tunes, the newly arrived troops marched towards the nearby railway station. A handful of passers-by paid little heed to the events and only a small number of people stopped to watch the soldiers parade by.
In the goods yard of the railway station, the American Military hustled the soldiers through. This was a great change from the relaxed atmosphere only a few weeks earlier when the same yard thronged with soldiers relaxing and giving interviews to a global gathering of press. There were still cups of coffee, ham sandwiches, and meat pies prepared by the N.A.A.F.I. This time, however, loudspeakers hurried the troops along.
Have your canteens ready and move along as quickly as possible. Meals will have to be eaten on the way to or on the train. Hurry up now, please, there are others waiting.
As the message blared out, a member of the Military Police ordered the few members of the press out of the goods shed.
At one camp, an eerie old mansion in rural Ulster, the Americans only arrived 24 hours later than expected. A team of British Army cooks had prepared a lavish meal, and on the failure of the Americans to arrive, all were called upon to help devour the feast. All was re-prepared the following day and the camp was ready when American soldiers quietly arrived the following night.
Many of the camps set up to temporarily house American troops are in similar mansions or stately houses. Outbuildings such as barns, stables, and byres on the estates were converted for use as dormitories. American-style huts erected on the grounds provided added comfort for the newly arrived troops. While life could be quiet in the countryside, one British Staff Sergeant promised an enjoyable time to those Americans who liked to hunt or fish.
The Americans will be very happy here if they have any taste for country life at all. They can, too, enjoy pigeon shooting in the woods as well as plenty of fishing.
A reporter from the Belfast Telegraph visited one camp ahead of the Americans’ arrival. He described a “snugness” and a “general atmosphere of well-being” about the place. Straw-stuffed mattresses and ready baths awaited the Americans after their long transatlantic journey. So to did a dinner of meat, vegetables, dessert, bread and syrup, and coffee. The following morning would see a hearty breakfast of fruit, porridge, cereals, bacon and eggs, and more coffee.
Well-fed and ready to go, the second contingent of American troops prepared for their time in Northern Ireland.