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 Word 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.
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.
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.
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.
On 15th January 1942, Convoy AT-10 departed from the eastern seaboard of the U.S.A. Unknown to most troops onboard, the destination was Northern Ireland.
On 26th January 1942, Sir Archibald Sinclair gave a short address at the quayside in Belfast welcoming the first contingent of the American Expeditionary Force.
As the first contingent of the American Expeditionary Force arrived in Ulster, a host of dignitaries gave a warm welcome to Major-General Hartle and troops.
In January 1942, elements of the United States Army crossed the Atlantic Ocean arriving in Northern Ireland and beginning a "friendly invasion" of Ulster.
As the first elements of the U.S. Army arrived in cities, towns, and villages throughout Northern Ireland, locals remarked on their good looks and uniforms.
Before the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force in Ulster, soldiers of the British Army helped set up camps for their new Ally in the war in Europe.
Following the arrival of the first elements of the U.S. Army in Belfast in January 1942, Prime Minister Mr. John Miller Andrews issued an official welcome.
Mary Pat Kelly is an Irish-American writer and filmmaker. In the 1990s, she researched the American Military's time in Northern Ireland for her book and accompanying documentary 'Home Away From Home: The Yanks In Ireland'.
Dr. Simon Topping is a lecturer at the University of Plymouth. He has undertaken extensive research into the social, and political impact of the time spent in Ulster by GIs for his latest book 'Northern Ireland, the United States, and the Second World War'.