On the evening of 17th April 1942, a tragic incident occurred in Co. Londonderry when US Army Sergeant William Venderbeck Clipsham of Narbeth, Pennsylvania shot bus driver Albert Rodden dead. The inquest returned a verdict of accidental death.
On Main Street, Dungiven, Co. Londonderry, the bus allowed the passing of a convoy of American military vehicles but cut off the last scout car. The convoy carried General George C Marshall, Lieutenant General James E Chaney, Major General Russell P Hartle, Harry Hopkins, and W Averell Harriman. The military men were on the way from a US Army camp at Limavady, Co. Londonderry to Ashbrook House, Derry, Co. Londonderry. Marshall and his group had inspected US troops and were on the way to dine with the Ash family.
Crash on Ballykelly Road
The scout car sounded the horn and made 4 attempts to overtake the bus. Driver Thomas de Felice pulled alongside the bus at Farloe Lane, Ballykelly, Co. Londonderry. Rodden’s vehicle swerved causing the car to strike the kerb at the roadside. Private John J Fraula was a passenger in the scout car and believed the accident was inevitable as both vehicles travelled at speed.
The impact with the kerb caused the machine gun mounted on the scout car to fire 3 rounds. A bullet penetrated Rodden’s shoulder, killing him at the wheel and causing the vehicle to crash through the wall of a small bridge. Conductor Frederick McMichael, aged 21 years old, escaped with minor injuries. He received treatment at Roe Valley Hospital, Co. Londonderry.
Senior officials gave orders for the main convoy not to stop but a motorcyclist escort halted and remained at the accident site until authorities arrived.
Investigation and Inquest
The death of a civilian required an inquest from Deputy Coroner John Acheson. This preceded Sergeant Clipsham’s court martial. This US Army court martial was the first in the United Kingdom and was open to the public. The coroner returned a verdict of accidental death. This cleared Sergeant William Clipsham of a potential manslaughter charge.
Findings suggested the machine gun on board the scout car was defective and should not have gone off in the impact. The investigation also called on a motorcyclist escort Private Robert W Scott. He stated that Rodden had told the scout car and motorcycle to stay behind conveying the message with a gesture. War correspondent Robert G Nixon expressed surprise at the actions of the bus driver at a speed of around 45mph. Corporal Looney was second in command in the scout car and claimed Clipsham had not been at the gun when it fired. Lieutenant PC Madeira had ordered the gun be half-loaded. This meant a gunner would need to make at least one movement making accidental discharge less likely.
Corporal Picariello, a military weapons inspector, contradicted this. He stated a half-loaded gun would go off if tapped a few times. Tapping these guns was a normal practise to test for defects. A Technical Sergeant from the Ordnance Maintenance Department backed up this evidence.
The repercussions of the incident were far-reaching. The case inferred that the US Military was accountable to Northern Ireland authorities. Having an open court martial helped ease the mood among locals. While it may have been a public relations exercise, it proved that the US Army would serve punishment where deemed necessary.