Irish-American author and filmmaker Mary Pat Kelly joins Scott Edgar to talk about the arrival of American GIs in Northern Ireland on the 80th anniversary of the first troopships arriving in Ulster. Her book and accompanying documentary 'Home Away From Home - The Yanks In Ireland' tells many stories of those young Americans on their way to war.
Hello and welcome to A Wee Bit Of War, a podcast dedicated to telling the stories of Northern Ireland during the Second World War. I'm your host Scott Edgar, and in this episode, we're joined by the fantastic Irish-American author and filmmaker Mary Pat Kelly.
Mary Pat Kelly, thank you very much for joining us on the WartimeNI podcast ‘A Wee Bit Of War’. You have the dubious distinction of being our first ever guest so you’re very welcome and we’re honoured to have you.
Mary Pat: 00:58
Thank you, I’m honoured to be here.
For our listeners who maybe don’t know you and your work, could you give us just a little introduction? Who are you and what drew you to this area?
Mary Pat: 01:11
Ok, my name is Mary Pat Kelly. I live in New York although I grew up in Chicago and still consider myself Chicagoan in my roots. I came to New York in 1970. I had quite a history before that but… I’m the oldest of five girls and one boy and when we would come home from school, we’d run up to my father with all our stories and he would say “summarise, girls, summarise”. So, I’m going to try to summarise.
In 1970, I came to New York. My family had moved from Chicago. I went to NYU Film School. Through a very serendipitous meeting with a young film student called Martin Scorcese, which is another whole story. And, while I was here, I worked in the media, did various things, went to graduate school. But, I had a big break when I got a job with Good Morning America in 1976. And, one of my jobs was to book guests and find interesting people, and there was a young man called Ted Smith who was the media representative for the Irish Embassy and he suggested a guest called John Hume, who was not very well known in the United States at that time. This is 1976.
So, I met Mr. Hume, and like everyone else, I was extremely impressed. And, I really felt his message of peace and reconciliation was really important in the U.S, which had a very nebulous understanding of what the conflict in Northern Ireland was all about. And, he was speaking sense and he was so charismatic. Unfortunately, the big producers at Good Morning America were not interested in having him as a guest because moderation is not good television, they said.
However, I had my own segment called Face-Off where you could get two people to argue an issue. So, I went back to Ted and I said “tell Mr. Hume that he can be in this kind of debate, but it won’t be a real debate. He can just state his issues”. And the word came back. “Mr. Hume says Northern Ireland is too complicated to reduce to a yes/no proposition”.
So, I said to Ted: “doesn’t he know we just beat The Today Show in the ratings!?” But that was my introduction to John Hume and I met him and I was so impressed with what he was trying to do in Northern Ireland and felt it was a message he had to get out. After I left Good Morning America, I worked for Saturday Night Live and that led me to Hollywood. So, for a few years, I made some money.
In 1983, I decided maybe I should make the documentary about John Hume and the people of Northern Ireland who wanted peace because that was the issue here and I was thinking recently The Good Friday Agreement… When you think what the vote for the referendum was – 95% in the Republic, 81% in the North. I mean, those are amazing figures saying yes to peace. So, I made the documentary. I called it To Live For Ireland with friends, with borrowed footage. And it was on PBS. It did well. It won a lot of prizes. Mike Farrell was the narrator. So, I said OK, that was a step forward.
However, then that put me in contact with a lot of people from Northern Ireland, especially a woman called Maybeth Fenton who was running kind of an unofficial Embassy of Northern Ireland in New York and was really attracting a lot of journalism, a lot of people who’d see it in a broader context. And, through her, I met Ian Henderson. And I was thinking, I guess this would be 1990. And Ian Henderson was head of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board was very very interested in the whole U.S. involvement in World War Two in Northern Ireland and had written a monograph. And I interviewed him. I was writing for Irish America magazine, and the editor there, Patricia Hardy, was very interested too. So, I wrote the article, and of course, Americans did not know that there were 300,000 Americans stationed in Northern Ireland during World War Two.
So, we were just coming up to the 50th anniversary, and Ian, Maybeth, David Boyce and I got together and we decided, OK, we’re going to do a documentary and luckily Maybeth Fenton was friendly with Walter Cronkite, who had been in Northern Ireland during World War Two as a correspondent, had been in Derry, and had great stories about crossing the border to get butter and eggs, and the people would wait on the border with raincoats. And, the idea was if you put on a raincoat and covered your uniform, you weren’t technically deserting, you were just going over the border for breakfast.
So, wonderful stories, and at that time, Milburn Henke, who was the first man off the boat. We’re coming up to the anniversary, January 26th, which was when the first Expeditionary Force ever in World War Two, of the U.S. troops landed in Belfast.
Most of them had been in National Guard units in the States. So they were young, they were from the mid-west. Milburn Henke was a perfect representative and he was willing to come back to Northern Ireland. So, he… The other group was Darby’s Rangers, that were formed from volunteers from the Expeditionary Force. They were the only American unit ever founded outside of the United States. They were put together in Carrickfergus and there’s a monument now in Carrickfergus.
Tuck Smith was a young naval aviator, and before Pearl Harbour, the British were training on Catalina Flying Boats PBYs off Lough Erne and Tuck Smith went over to work with them, this is before Pearl Harbour, and during that early time, before the U.S. entered the war, there was a lot of opposition to the U.S. getting into the war. A lot of bad memories from World War One. A lot of America First kinds of things. And Roosevelt… Tuck Smith told me Roosevelt told him, “if they find out you’re over there helping the British R.A.F., they will impeach me”. So, that’s where we were.
But Tuck Smith came over and in the documentary, I was able to tell the story of how he was the one that discovered the Bismarck when the great warship was trying to escape into the Atlantic, which would have just been terrible for shipping. Things were bad enough. He stayed on station but because he wasn’t supposed to be there, for 50 years he gave credit to the co-pilot. And it was just when the co-pilot died and told the truth, that Tuck admitted it. So, he came over.
So, the documentary is called Home Away From Home: The Yanks In Ireland. Phil Coulter wrote a wonderful theme that has become a hit in its own right, Home Away From Home – The Yanks In Ireland. The last part of it was that Derry had the only U.S. Navy base, the biggest one, and it was a homeport for the Destroyer Escorts. So, I was able to – remember this was ’91/92. These men were in their early 70s and they had wonderful memories of Northern Ireland. My real aim was to tell the Northern Ireland story without concentrating on The Troubles; to talk about the hospitality, about the good humour, about the beautiful scenery, the music, and that’s what we did in the documentary. They all had memories. They all had great stories and one funny thing, now that he’s passed:
Walter Cronkite, I said, you know a lot of people in Northern Ireland are going to see this. Thye might remember you and get in touch. And he said, well there’s only one person that I would really want to be in touch with and he said I don’t really know where she is now. I said, well, you know, she’ll probably find you. He said, well I don’t know if my wife, how she’d feel about that. I said, oh, you know, we’ve brought people back with their wives. They understand, they were young, there were connections. And he goes; “not my wife!”
But those kinds of wonderful human stories, and that was my purpose. First of all, this was a very important part of history that was forgotten. And second of all, to show Northern Ireland in a different way, and so that’s why I loved working on it. And it’s caught on. I found out that… All this happens through serendipitous, providential… I found out that in 1995, many of the U.S. Navy veterans came back for V.E. Day, for the 50th anniversary, and because there were so many Navy veterans, “Snuffy” Smith – Admiral Leighton Smith – came. And we had a ball. It was really fun, and you know, Northern Ireland knows how to give a party. You know that. When he went back, he was the NATO Commander. That was when the young airman Scott O’Grady was shot down over Bosnia. He was rescued by the Marines. And Admiral Smith was in charge of the rescue. So, I called to congratulate him and he said to me; “you have to write about the Marines” so I did. Met the Marines. And I kept thinking, too bad there were no Marines in Northern Ireland because they would love to come.
Well, guess what, 500 Marines stationed in Derry to guard the Navy base at Beech Hill House, which is… my friend owned the hotel, Patsy O’Kane and the Donnelly family. So that became an annual connection. So, I just found that because people have such great memories, and they told their families, and they wanted to come back. It broke the idea that… My husband is from Tyrone and his own nephews, when they served in the American forces, contemporary, now, like in the 80s, they were not allowed to go to Northern Ireland. It was considered too dangerous for serving American servicemen. So, we just brought a lot back because I think one of the best slogans ever from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board is “you never know unless you go”.
Among the best groups that went back were the crew of the U.S.S. Mason. They were the only African-American sailors to take a warship into combat and when I was doing my research about Derry as a Navy base, I found newspaper articles where they said the first time they were ever treated as Americans was in Northern Ireland. And so, they told their story. That became its own documentary called Proudly We Served, and then a feature film starring Stephen Rea and Ossie Davis called ‘Proud’. They came back and just to top things off, they met Queen Elizabeth. So, I feel like we have a skit that is done in the States about baseball’s been very good to me. Well, I figure Northern Ireland and its connections to the U.S. Forces has been very good to me. Great adventures.
You have certainly done a lot for those veterans and for the people of Northern Ireland in educating us all on these things. We’ll come back just briefly to a couple of the characters that you mentioned there but we are going to be putting this podcast out on the 26th January so could you take us back 80 years and just set the scene in Belfast. What happened on that day when Private First Class Milburn Henke stepped ashore in Belfast.
Mary Pat: 13:17
Well, first of all, as I said, until Pearl Harbour, there was a great deal of opposition to the U.S. entering into World War Two so then came Pearl Harbour and the initial feeling was there was always a debate about do we go for the Japanese, do we go for the Nazis? But Britain and Northern Ireland had been at war, you know, already for 3 years and things were getting very difficult. So, the idea was OK we’ll start in Europe but we’ll start… Northern Ireland would be a good jumping-off place. It would be a place to train. It would be fairly safe. It was far enough from Germany that they couldn’t easily bomb. Although, as you know, there were two or three raids. However, they felt it was fairly safe.
Now, crossing the Atlantic, crossing the North Atlantic was very difficult because the U-Boats really controlled the North Atlantic. They were sinking a ship, you know, every ten minutes – huge amounts of tons. There was a blockade of Britain and it was impossible to get across. And that’s when they decided to do the escorts. So you’ve gotta imagine, OK, ten thousand men in this troopship headed for Northern Ireland, crossing the North Atlantic, a sitting duck for the U-Boats with these little D.E.s kind of scurrying along. There’s a wonderful book that was a movie called The Good Shepherd because the British Navy had D.E.s also. So, kind of shepherding these ships across. You can imagine the relief when they arrived in Belfast and the reception they got… There’s great pictures of the shipyard workers greeting them.
I mean the reason why I called the documentary Home Away From Home was that every single veteran I talked to, talked about how warm and welcoming the people were. However, that doesn’t take away from how important it was historically, and at that moment, I mean, it looked like the Nazis were going to win. It looked like, things were very bleak. We had a wonderful service in Carrickfergus and it’s in the documentary, and the pastor gave a beautiful sermon talking about how nervous and how afraid people were and here came the Americans and it was kind of a beacon of hope and connections. And so many of the people that came had relatives north and south of the border, and they made connections. In the documentary, I use A Letter From Ulster, which was made contemporaneously, of these two Americans in a jeep driving around Northern Ireland. And, I drove Ian Henderson crazy with this but the number one song on the Hit Parade was Johnny Doughboy Found A Rose In Ireland. Kate Smith, but there were many, many. It was all about how he found a girl that the blarney in her voice took him back and reminded him of his mother.
Johnny Doughboy found a rose in Ireland. Sure the fairest flower that Erin ever grew.
Mary Pat: 16:40
It was like these connections that had been severed a century before were now being reconnected. And then the training began and that was the Rangers, the first Commando unit, and there were all kinds of training and a lot of getting ready because they felt they were going to invade Europe right away. The invasion of North Africa went from Northern Ireland, and then of course it all came together on D-Day but we’re a little ahead of ourselves now. We just have to imagine these troopships pulling up to Belfast and coming off and being greeted by pipes and cheers, and there was a feeling that, OK, we’re together now, and we’re gonna win.
And officially, the first GI to step ashore was Milburn Henke. That’s not strictly true because quite a few GIs had already disembarked from another ship and were there on the quayside to greet him. But he was chosen as, let’s call it, the poster boy, the media-friendly smiling face of the American GI.
Mary Pat: 17:49
Right, he was kind of your typical American guy, mid-west, and the other interesting thing was that even before January, as you know, all through the summer of 1941, there were Navy, U.S. Navy personnel in Derry building the naval base, and building in an infrastructure but they were dressed as civilians and I had fun with that in the movie, where the Derry people said: “we knew, we knew what you were up to!” All of a sudden then comes Pearl Harbour and all these men are now dressed in uniform but you’re right, they picked Milburn Henke because he was kind of mid-west and straight-talking, the American kind of John Wayne figure, although he was a little guy.
He was a little guy and also in perhaps some little shades of irony here, his father was German.
Mary Pat: 18:41
Right, exactly, yeah. I know it…
Officially the first American GI to set foot in Europe had a German father but I believe from what I’ve read that it had no influence on Henke at all and he had a postcard with him from his father and I believe the postcard just said “give ’em hell, boy”.
Mary Pat: 19:06
Well, when he came back in ’91/92 I guess, he had only good memories. Although, you know, they all sublimated the negative things. I mean, like the Rangers, they were in some of the worst battles. They had a 110% casualty rate. So, I remember one of them telling me, in those days when you came home, it was the good war. You were supposed to just get on with it and not think about what had happened. And I think that was Henke too.
Another sad thing that’s in the documentary is, as I said they made friends. And when you say about him being German, there were a lot of Italian-Americans in the services and they found Italian people in Northern Ireland – many of them that had the ice cream shops and I remember one woman telling me how they would come to their house for Sunday dinner and then after D-Day, after the invasion, they started to get the letters that they had written to these servicemen returned stamped deceased. So, there was a lot of sadness too. But a lot of happiness, a lot of marriages. I read one statistic that said 25% of the Marines in Derry married Derry women.
That may or may not surprise some of our listeners up in Derry. Like you said, there were a lot of relationships and the GIs that came over were a big hit with the ladies in Northern Ireland. I remember reading in your book, a quote from, I think it just comes from A Belfast Woman. She said that she married a sailor in 1941 but boy, she wished she’d waited for Yank in ’42. Were the stories of these relationships something that you came across a lot?
Mary Pat: 21:00
A lot! And the other part of this story that’s interesting is that when I first started doing the research, the National Archives here that had everything told me no, no, there wasn’t much about Northern Ireland during World War Two. No, there wasn’t anything about, especially about the Navy in Derry. One man said to me… Dear, the Marines were in ICELAND, not Ireland. You know, they were quite dismissive. However, I persevered and eventually, we found 150 boxes of information, and among the information were requests to marry from… You know, you had to get their Commanding Officer to sign off. So, you really had a lot of stories right there.
When we came back, I guess in ’92, a man and his daughter came back. He had wanted to marry but because she was Catholic and he was Protestant, they couldn’t find someone to marry them, and then he was shipped out and they never really connected again until 1992.
Wow, that’s fantastic. They came back together after all those years.
Mary Pat: 22:15
Well, I don’t know what happened but I remember they were happy to see each other. We forget how young they all were. I mean these kids, they were 19, 20, 21 years old and I think the relationships were… Most of them were… It was a more innocent time. It was all about dances. Phil Coulter told me one of the reasons why there are so many professional musicians in Derry now is because during the war you could actually make a living playing for the dances. The other cool thing about Derry, and Mark Durkan’s uncles owned a bar and they refused to discriminate. There was still segregation and discrimination but people in Northern Ireland wouldn’t go along with it. Mark has a copy of the letter one of his uncles wrote to Eisenhower saying they all wear the same uniform, they’re going to be treated the same way. So, I think that was, you know, not to get into the hole, but many of the African-Americans that served in World War Two, they were the leaders when they came back because they had been treated in a different way, and Northern Ireland can be very proud of that record.
I have read that the treatment received by black service personnel during the Second World War in Northern Ireland did indirectly influence decisions that were made after the war to get rid of segregation within the U.S. Army.
Mary Pat: 23:49
You mentioned the U.S.S. Mason and lots of stories like that coming back. One of the things that we’ve kind of touched on is politics, and you mentioned the issues between Protestants and Catholics marrying there, which has just put into my mind the Pocket Book, which all of the GIs were issued with. Of course, I think some of the advice in that… It in some ways was a tourist guide, in other ways, it was telling you table manners if you were invited for dinner with an Irish family. But one of the big things that possibly still applies today was; do not talk politics and do not talk religion. Do you know anything about how that book came about?
Mary Pat: 24:39
Well, I know that it was done, as you say, half as a tourist guide and half trying to get people to be sensitive to the cultural issues. You know, America has a lot of problems but at that point, the religious divide was not front and centre. So, I think most of them were young and they caught on. I think the hospitality was such that the people didn’t ask people’s religion and so I think it was time when some of that was suspended, except sometimes the marriages, like this one couple I know they had a hard time. But yeah, it was such an odd thing because, in many ways, they felt they were going to a very familiar society and then they would, every once in a while, stumble against these issues.
There are hundreds if not thousands of stories that we could tell of the Americans’ time in Northern Ireland. Why do you feel that 80 years later, this is still an important thing for us to remember or an important thing for us to talk about?
Mary Pat: 25:48
Well, I think it was a time when the world pulled together. I mean, right now we’re seeing so much division in the U.S. It was a time when we pulled together. Just the manufacturing. I mean, the idea that they were building 3 and 4 and 5 planes a day and now we can’t even, you know, pave our streets. That’s a mundane thing but I think that spirit of cooperation was important. Obviously, the Nazi threat was… I still really haven’t taken it in exactly how devastating and how was it possible, the Holocaust. I mean, I have friends that are the children of Holocaust survivors. It still, you know, boggles the mind, certainly, it had to be stopped. On a geopolitical thing. But also I think, for Northern Ireland, it seemed to me, the hospitality, in my mind I’ve always had the experience, is the greatest virtue. And to see it extended to these young men far away from home, not knowing what the future would mean. I still have the great line in Home Away From Home, you know, “will I ever remember the sun rising on Benown, the laughter of the children, I’m sailing into hell”. To have that experience of a connection, and beauty… I mean, every single veteran I’ve talked to talks about how beautiful the scenery was and the landscape. My favourite was Mr. Dufois, one of the Mason veterans kept shaking his head because, I guess, a woman apologised for the rain. He said, can you imagine that someone apologising for the rain!? Because the sun made Ireland look so beautiful.
I think it is important to remember that it is possible to connect, it is possible to do something positive together. And I think we really have to remember that right now.
Well, it has been an absolute pleasure connecting with you in this conversation. And, Ireland still remains a very beautiful place, and I believe you have plans to come and see it again for yourself soon.
Mary Pat: 27:59
Yes, I plan to spend the summer in Derry, which to me is the light at the end of the COVID tunnel, and I hope everyone remains safe and that we all meet again, as Vera Lynn used to sing “we’ll meet again, who knows where who knows when”. That’s my prayer for all of us. I feel it’s an honour. I feel it was very serendipitous, providential. I thank Ted Smith. I thank Maybeth Fenton. I thank Ian Henderson. And of course John and Pat Hume. All the people in Derry that were so open to me and connected me to these stories. And as you say, there’s still many. I think it’s very important now that the next generation makes sure that they ask their parents and grandparents what they remember because it’s very easy to lose these stories, and that’s why I salute you. Thank you very much, Scott, for what you’re doing. I think it’s really important. You know that old saying if you don’t know history, you’re doomed to repeat it. We want to remember the good things because we need to hold on to those.
Well, we will certainly do our best to keep telling those stories. It has been an absolute honour having you on the podcast and getting to have this conversation with you. Can you just remind our listeners about your book, documentary… Where can they get a hold of that for a read or watch.
Mary Pat: 29:21
Well, Appletree Press published the book called Home Away From Home – The Yanks In Ireland. Also, I believe you can just Google it and find it streaming or whatever. And they might enjoy the feature film Proud with Stephen Rea and Ossie Davis, and also Proudly We Served, the men of the Mason. It’s a great story and we had enough of the living people that could tell the story, that gives it a sense of authenticity.
Well, we hope to maybe have you back on here again and tell some more of those stories sometime. But for now Mary Pat Kelly, it has been a privilege. Thank you very much for your time, and we’ll chat again soon.
Mary Pat: 30:11
My pleasure. Take care, stay safe.
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Thank you for joining myself and Mary Pat Kelly. I look forward to your company again next time for another Wee Bit Of War.