The US Army first came to Northern Ireland in 1942 only a month after entering the war. The story of Private First Class Milburn H Henke is now well known in Belfast but he was not the first of the American GIs to land. Nor would he be the last. Within a year, tens of thousands of US troops made their second home in rural Northern Ireland.
Henke was part of the first wave of American military to land in Belfast under the banner of Force Magnet I.
The 34th Infantry Division (Mechanized) provided most of the men for this first convoy. Three more convoys arrived on 3rd March, 12th May, and 18th May. V Corps had arrived in Northern Ireland.
US Army V Corps arrive in Lurgan
V Corps made their headquarters at Brownlow House, Lurgan, Co. Armagh. The 34th (Red Bull) US Infantry set up camp first at Ballymena, Co. Antrim before moving to Omagh, Co. Tyrone. The 1st Armored Division of the US Army, known as The Old Ironsides made Castlewellan, Co. Down its primary base.
Further divisions of V Corps – the 32nd, 37th, and 45th should have travelled to Northern Ireland. The ferocious nature of the war in the Pacific saw them diverted to the front lines there.
The highlight of the training undertaken in Northern Ireland was Exercise Atlantic held over ten days in July 1942. The exercise saw US 1st Armored Division, British 59th Division, British 72nd Brigade come under command of V Corps. They opposed American 34th Division and British 61st Division. They were under the watchful eye of the General Officer Commanding British Troops in Northern Ireland.
Before the arrival of American troops in Northern Ireland plans were laid in Washington. A meeting between Roosevelt and Churchill defined Operation Magnet. US Troops would have the honour of being responsible for ground defence in Northern Ireland.
The King and Queen inspect the US Army
This important contingent received several distinguished visitors during their time in Ulster. His Majesty King George VI and Queen Elizabeth arrived on 25th June 1942 to tour US bases. Their accompaniment for the trip was United States Ambassador John G Winant.
The King and Queen were tremendously impressed by what they saw, particularly the appearances of men, messes, quarters and so on.
General Eisenhower writing to General George C Marshall in June 1942.
Supreme Commander General Eisenhower also visited the province in 1942. Along with Generals Clark, Lee, and Spatz he attended a conference with General Hartle and General Bonesteel. Bonesteel was Commander of the US Forces in Iceland at the time.
On my recent visit to Ireland, I was more than pleased with the standards attained there.
General Eisenhower writing to General Hartle in 1942.
By September 1942, the role of the US troops in Europe had intensified. Much of V Corps who made up the first wave of troops were bound for Operation Torch, the liberation of North Africa. With their departure, Eisenhower wished to relinquish the role of ground control. He surmised America could better defend the skies over Northern Ireland.
For the following year, until October 1943, only an administrative element of the US Army remained in Northern Ireland. Their role was to prepare for the imminent arrival of the second wave of GIs.
Arrival of the second wave
The first of these men arrived on 18th October 1943 under the command of Major General Walter M Robertson. With the bold claim of being “second to none”, the 2nd US Infantry Division landed in Belfast. They too like their predecessors received a welcome from Prime Minister Andrews and the Duke of Abercorn. From Belfast they travelled to Co. Armagh, set up headquarters in the Cathedral City and posted men throughout the Armagh and Newry area.
The next few months saw American military arrive thick and fast throughout Northern Ireland.
The 5th US Infantry Division commanded by General Leroy S Irwin arrived in late October 1943. On arrival they were known as The Red Diamonds. The 5th Infantry headquarters were established in Newcastle Co. Down with men billeted across the south-east of the county.
The 82nd US Airborne Division arrived fresh from the front in Italy in early December 1943. Their commander was Major General Matthew B Ridgeway. He set up a command centre in Castledawson, quartering troops around the nearby Cookstown area.
Before Christmas of 1943, Headquarters of XV Corps arrived under command of Major General Wade H Heslip. Like V Corps before them they were based in Lurgan’s Brownlow House.
The remaining troops in the second wave came from General William C McMahon’s 8th US Infantry Division. First named ‘The Pathfinders’ they would become ‘The Golden Arrow’ division. Fermanagh and south Tyrone played host to the 8th Infantry. McMahon’s headquarters were based in Omagh, Co. Tyrone.
The US Army ship out to war
By February 1944, there were around 100,000 American troops throughout Northern Ireland. Some would stay only a few months before being sent to the front. By June 1944 all the GIs were gone, part of Operation Overlord, the quest to liberate Europe.
With V Corps in North Africa and XV Corps in Europe, Northern Ireland was left to continue wartime life without their American guests. Some would one day return to Ulster to meet future wives or old family. Many thousands more would never make it back from the front lines.