The first elements of the United States Army arrive in Northern Ireland

On 26th January 1942, elements of the United States Army began to arrive at Belfast Docks in Northern Ireland marking their entry into the war in Europe.

Belfast on 26th January 1942 was cold and grey. It was a quiet winter's morning and few in the city knew what lay ahead. Soon, a young soldier would step ashore at the city docks, and the role played by Northern Ireland in the Second World War would change forever.

That man was Private First Class Milburn H. Henke. All around him, thousands more American soldiers made their first foray into the European Theatre of Operations. In a little under 11 days, more than 4,000 troops of the U.S. Army had crossed the Atlantic Ocean. The U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy had patrolled the waters. The Royal Air Force had maintained a diligent overhead vigil. And so, without mishap, the first contingent of American Forces to set foot in Europe docked in Northern Ireland.

Private First Class Milburn H. Henke arriving in Belfast on 26th January 1942

LIFE Magazine Photo: United States Army Private First Class Milburn H. Henke of 34th (Red Bull) Infantry Division disembarks at the quayside in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo taken by David E. Scherman on 26th January 1942.

These soldiers were the first troops from the United States of America to set foot on Ulster soil since The Great War of 1914-1918. Only six weeks earlier, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had declared war on the Axis Powers. That declaration preceded an announcement that American land, sea, and air forces would take up positions in the British Isles. The United Kingdom, he described as:

An essential fortress in the world struggle.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States of America on 6th January 1942

News of the troops’ arrival in Northern Ireland soon reached Washington, D.C. in a statement from Mr. Henry L. Stimson (United States Secretary for War).

Northern Ireland – The Secretary for War announces the arrival in Northern Ireland of United States Army forces under the command of Major-General Russell P. Hartle. The Secretary of War declined to make public the designation of the units, their composition and strength. Nor would he divulge the ports of embarkation, the dates of sailing or other details of movement from the United States.

Henry L. Stimson, United States Secretary of State for War on 27th January 1942

U.S. Army troops arriving in Belfast on 26th January 1942

Imperial War Museum Photo: (H 16838) (Part of the War Office Second World War Official Collection) United States Army troops of 34th (Red Bull) Infantry Division disembark at the quayside in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo taken by Lieutenant J.R. Bainbridge on 26th January 1942.

The vessels crossing the Atlantic Ocean in January 1942 carried not only American soldiers. As well as infantry, field artillery, and signals, there were American nurses, and even some members of the British Forces. Some were returning from distant battlefronts, or making their way home after surviving the loss of a ship in the Battle of the Atlantic. En route, the Americans and British mixed. The Americans found out a little about the ways of life in the United Kingdom; about the girls, the food, the weather, and the ways of the British Army.

All on board were eager to arrive at their destination. The American soldiers were ready for war. Not only would they provide help to the Allies in Europe and North Africa, but they would also boost Ulster’s defences. All that lay ahead, as Milburn Henke’s soft-soled brown boots stepped onto the cobble square-sets of Belfast Docks.

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References
  1. Staff Writer (1942) 'Around and About', Belfast News-Letter, 27th January 1942, Available at: [ https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0000038/19420127/054/0002], Accessed 8th December 2021.
  2. Staff Writer (1942) 'American Troops in Ulster', Belfast News-Letter, 27th January 1942, Available at: [ https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0000038/19420127/054/0003], Accessed 8th December 2021.
  3. Staff Writer (1942) ‘American Troops in Ulster’, Northern Whig, 27th January 1942, Available at: [https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0001542/19420127/001/0001], Accessed 8th December 2021.
  4. Staff Writer (1942) ‘Here To Give Hitler Hell’, Northern Whig, 27th January 1942, Available at: [https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0001542/19420127/095/0004], Accessed 8th December 2021.
  5. Staff Writer (1942) ‘Thousands of men came from “Over There”’, Northern Whig, 27th January 1942, Available at: [https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0001542/19420127/024/0002], Accessed 8th December 2021.
  6. Staff Writer (1942) ‘British Army As Hosts’, Londonderry Sentinel, 27th January 1942, Available at: [https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0001480/19420127/054/0002], Accessed 8th December 2021.
  7. Staff Writer (1942) ‘Enemy Planes Over Ulster Fired On As American Army Vanguard Arrives’, Belfast Telegraph, 27th January 1942, Available at: [https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0002318/19420127/026/0002], Accessed 8th December 2021.

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