Episode 03: Black GIs On The Emerald Isle with Dr. Simon Topping

Dr. Simon Topping (University of Plymouth) joins Scott Edgar to talk about his new book and life in Northern Ireland for blacks GIs during the Second World War.

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'A Wee Bit Of War' by Scott Edgar / Dr. Simon Topping

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Running Time: 36:11

  • Irish History
  • American History
  • Military History


  1. Black GIs On The Emerald Isle with Dr. Simon Topping

Black GIs On The Emerald Isle with Dr. Simon Topping

Dr. Simon Topping (University of Plymouth) is a historian and author of 'Northern Ireland, the United States, and the Second World War' (Bloomsbury). He has researched and written extensively on segregated units of the U.S. Army, looking in particular at the time spent in Ulster by black GIs during the Second World War. A Black History Month special.


Hello and welcome to 'A Wee Bit Of War', the 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 are joined by Associate Professor in the School of Society and Culture at the University of Plymouth, and author of the brand new book 'Northern Ireland, the United States, and the Second World War', Dr. Simon Topping.

Simon, it’s a pleasure to have you on ‘A Wee Bit Of War’. In this episode, we will be looking further at time spent in Northern Ireland by American Forces during the Second World War. This is an area that you have researched at great length and written extensively about. For those listeners who are new to your work, can you give us a brief introduction? Who is Dr. Simon Topping and can you tell us a little bit about your latest work?

Simon: 01:02
Yes Scott, thanks for the invite. My name’s Simon Topping. I’m a Senior Lecturer in United States History at the University of Plymouth but I’m originally from Newtownabbey. I got into this, kind of by accident really. It was never my intention to do Northern Irish history or Irish history. I’m an Americanist by trade. But I came across an article in the New York Times from 1944 about an American soldier who had been executed in Belfast for the murder of a local man, and that kind of piqued my interest.

Like a lot of people, I had this sort of dim idea that the Americans had been in Northern Ireland during the war, and there was even a family photo of my father with a GI when he was a teenager. It all sort of clicked into place, and then I did a bit of digging about the soldier who was executed. It turned out he was called Wiley Harris, and he was an African-American soldier. So, my main interest in America was in civil rights – at this point, it was civil rights in the 30s and 40s, so this fitted into that. But it fitted into a broader narrative of African-American soldiers in the U.K., and the idea that this was Northern Ireland’s first encounter with a racial minority.

So, I wanted to know what the response of the people of Northern Ireland was to the African-American soldiers. Was there any kind of affinity between the minority Catholic community and the Americans because of their kind of shared experience of oppression and what legacy – if any – was left behind. And, where Harris was concerned – and I imagine we’ll talk a little bit more about this – I wanted to make sure he was guilty because black soldiers were disproportionately likely to be convicted and disproportionately likely to be executed for crimes, the same sort of crimes as white soldiers committed. So, I wanted to check to make sure he was guilty of the crime that he had been accused of.

Scott: 03:17
And you have been working for the last number of years on your latest book. Can you tell us a little bit about the book? What’s it called? It encompasses a lot more than just the black soldiers. It’s more of an overall look at the GI presence in Northern Ireland.

Simon: 03:39
Yeah, the story just kept growing. So, I made a visit to the Public Record Office back when it was up near the King’s Hall. That’s how long I’ve been doing the research on this book. And, the records that Stormont kept, there was so much more to it than my particular interest; preparations for the Americans arriving, what to do with the Americans, hospitality committees, and it just mushroomed, and it became about Belfast, its relationship with London, its relationship with Washington, its relationship with Dublin. But also, the other relationships. So the relationship between the Americans and the Irish Government – Eire’s Government, and trans-Atlantic relations, and it got into the impact on women in Northern Ireland although some really good work has been done on that by Leanne McCormack. It got into diaspora, so the idea of Ulster-Scots as the first Irish immigrants, and memorialisation. What the Americans left behind, and how that presence was remembered. So, it went down all these other avenues that I wasn’t anticipating, and it just was fascinating to look at all of these things, and to try and create a broad narrative – even if it has all of these roads and avenues that depart from that.

Scott: 05:30
So, this year on the podcast here, we are going to have several episodes commemorating the 80th anniversary of the arrival of American troops in Ulster. For me, it was the chance discovery of the former American Military Cemetery at Lisnabreeny that sparked my interest in the GIs. Could you tell us a little bit about the cemetery at Lisnabreeny?

Simon: 05:53
Well, the cemetery at Lisnabreeny was the second cemetery, actually possibly the third cemetery that the Americans used. They initially had cemeteries in Belfast and Londonderry, and they repatriated these bodies and the U.S. Army’s Graves Commission came in. It worked actually with Wilton’s Funeral Home in Belfast, which I think is still going. This was going to be where they would bury any Americans who died in Northern Ireland. About 150 died, well about 170 died but 150 are or were interred at Lisnabreeny.

At the end of the war, American policy was to either repatriate bodies if that’s what the families wanted or to consolidate the graveyards throughout the U.K. into one in Cambridge. Now, Stormont offered to look after the cemetery and the graves in perpetuity but the Americans insisted that they were going to move the graves. So, there were a couple of ceremonies in 1945. There was one in May 1945 for U.S. Memorial Day and then there was one in October and one in November, one to mark the closing of the cemetery, and the other to mark the disinterring of the bodies. I think about 10 years ago, locals got together with Castlereagh Borough Council and created a permanent memorial.

One of the other poignant things about Lisnabreeny – and I think your website has some photos of this is that locals adopted graves and tended them. And this happened elsewhere as well. I know that in Arnhem after Operation Market Garden, Dutch civilians looked after Allied servicemen’s graves. It was a similar thing that went on at Lisnabreeny.

Scott: 08:08
Yeah, there is a lovely photo – I believe it was published in an American newspaper at the time – of what I assume is a local woman laying flowers on one of the graves, and you can just see the white crosses kind of going out into the distance in the Belfast hills. It’s great to know that local people adopted those graves and cared for them.

Simon: 08:32
I think similar things happened with crash sites when U.S. planes – not just U.S. planes – but when planes came down. I think there were little memorials placed at those.

Scott: 08:45
And there still are a few of those memorials that can be seen around the city. There is one that I know of in the grounds of Belfast Zoo, which commemorates 10 U.S. airmen who were killed when their B-17 came down on Cave Hill.

Simon: 09:04
Yeah, ‘The Closing Of The Ring’ story.

Scott: 09:08
It’s become quite a famous story and that Attenborough movie was made about it. It’s a phenomenal tale and well worth anyone doing a bit more research or watching the film on that one.

We are recording this conversation in February, and that in the United States of America is Black History Month. With around 300,000 U.S. troops passing through Ulster between 1942 and ’45, many of them served in segregated units of black soldiers. One story from the time really shook public opinion in Ulster and prompted some to think hard and question the inherent racism in the United States Army, and that was the story we touched upon earlier, that of Wiley Harris Jr. What can you tell us about Harris and that story?

Simon: 10:03
Well, Harris was 26. He was from Macon, GA. He had a kind of an ordinary record as a soldier, and he and his comrades were based in Poyntzpass. They took the train into Belfast on leave. They spent the day drinking, and they were in North Belfast. They were in a bar – the Diamond Bar if recollection serves. And they were looking for prostitutes and there was a woman who went to an air-raid shelter with one of Harris’ colleagues. Came back. Harris then went to the air-raid shelter with her accompanied by a local man named Henry or Harry Coogan.

Harris and the woman went down into the shelter and before anything could happen, Coogan shouted that the police were coming so the two of them hurried back out of the shelter. Harris had a flashlight, a torch, shone up and down the street, couldn’t see the police, asked the woman to return to the shelter. She refused so he demanded his money back. She refused to give him his money and they got into a squabble. She dropped the coins and Coogan produced a knife. Sorry, Coogan said that Harris was carrying a knife and struck Harris. Harris retaliated. Now, Harris had a knife in his pocket. He had a jackknife, a flick knife. A lot of African-American soldiers – a lot of soldiers generally – carried weapons. For African-American soldiers, if they were on their own, they risked being attacked by white soldiers so they were often armed, and there are accounts of black soldiers being searched before leaving their bases to go on leave.

So, Harris was armed and he retaliated with ferocity. He stabbed Coogan 17 times and then fled. So, Harris did kill Coogan. There’s no doubt about that. The issue for the Court Martial was whether or not Harris acted with premeditation. Now, when you think about it, you could argue that Harris was acting in self-defence. So that was Harris’ defence. However, the U.S. military judicial system interpreted self-defence very narrowly and interpreted premeditation very narrowly, so even though Harris was struck first, the level of ferocity of his retaliation was such that the U.S. Court Martial decided that it constituted premeditation and murder and that Harris was guilty.

Now, as I say, Harris’ guilt was not in doubt. He did do it. But there were pleas for clemency. Now, these mostly came from Unions and from Protestant Churches. These got to Sir Basil Brooke, who was the Prime Minister at the time, and Brooke was approached by the Duke of Abercorn, who was the Governor-General, and asked what he could do. And, Brooke said that had Harris been put on trial on a local court, a civilian court, he probably would have got a life sentence rather than a death penalty, and we did have the death penalty still during the war. It was only exercised once during the war, but we did have it during the war.

But, Brooke and Abercorn couldn’t intervene because, in 1942, the U.K. Government signed the Visiting Forces Act, which ceded jurisdiction over American Forces to the Americans even for crimes committed against civilians.

Another interesting layer to this is the coroner’s jury, where the Belfast coroner Dr. Lowe told the jury to disregard the fact that it was what he called a “coloured man” who had killed a white man. They were to put this from their minds. He also blamed women and parents for not controlling their daughters. He talked about this, there was a lot less running around by these young girls, this sort of thing wouldn’t have happened. But, the coroner’s court found no premeditation so Harris could have been spared. Now, at Harris’ trial, the prostitute couldn’t identify him, or rather she couldn’t when she was brought to, I think it was, Victoria Barracks. She couldn’t identify him but there was blood on his coat when he returned to his digs, and he confessed to a Military Policeman without realising what he was doing. At the Court Martial, I found it really interesting, that for the most part, the locals referred to harris as “the American”, sometimes “the coloured American”, which would have been normal at the time. And they don’t emphasise his race. The Belfast newspapers rarely make reference to his race, whereas the American Military including his own defence lawyer do. And when you look at the review, which is done for any Court Martial conviction, there’s this subtext about race and sex, you know, this idea that part of Harris’ crime was that he was a black man with a white woman, and Coogan is repurposed, if you like, as defending this woman, coming to her aid, so the threat is not to Coogan as such. The threat is to the woman, the white woman. But they confirm the sentence. Eisenhower signs the death warrant, and the U.S. military gets in touch with the police, and Coogan’s family and they stress that this was about discipline and military justice, as well as justice, and it was kind of to lay down a marker, that American soldiers would be subject to vigorous law. So, the kind of postscript to this was that Harris was buried in a – not quite a – unmarked grave but in a graveyard in France where other people given the death sentence are buried, and they are all marked with small black plaques. It is hedged off away from the rest of the cemetery.

Scott: 17:44
There are a lot of layers to unpack in that story, not just on a, you know, level of race but in terms of feminism, and just a totally different way of thinking that people had at the time. This story of Wiley Harris Jr. is thankfully something of an anomaly from Northern Ireland at the time. Many black service personnel passed through Ulster, particularly in Quartermaster Regiments, on their way to North Africa and Normandy. What was life like for the most part for these men when they came to Northern Ireland?

Simon: 18:25
The response of African-American soldiers and the local population seems to be broadly positive. Now, there are caveats to this when it comes to interracial dating, or dating rather but you had this with white Americans as well. And, one of the things – and this is not unique to Northern Ireland, by any means – but one of the things the black GIs found was that they were being treated well by a white population, which by and large they weren’t used to, particularly if they were from the south of the United States.

They proved popular with the girls, as you might imagine, as indeed many Americans did and seemed to recall their time here fondly. Letters home talk about how much fun they’re having, how welcome they’re being made, and there are a couple of great stories that I’ve come across about the black GIs. A couple of these might be apocryphal, but there is a story about black GIs showing up to a dance, I think it was in Bessbrook, and there’s a sign of the hall door saying “dance for the black men”, and these African-American GIs show up and they’re not allowed in, and they think that Jim Crow’s been introduced, that there’s going to be a colour, and obviously it turns out that it’s a dance for members of the Royal Black Preceptory. So, it looks like an encounter with Jim Crow but it’s actually an encounter with Northern Ireland’s parochialism.

There is a story that someone I interviewed for the articles, which became part of the book, a guy from Antrim called Bob Fawcett, and he remembered the GIs in Antrim in ’42. One of the things that he talked about was a more unpleasant incident, that we can perhaps talk about it a moment, but one of the things he remembered was befriending a black GI called Buck Nettles and Buck Nettles had two jackets, one with Sergeant stripes on it and one without because he kept getting busted. So, he kept two jackets to save on the sewing.

Bob also recalled an incident where his family was woken and they came downstairs and they found a black GI on their living room floor. And, what had happened was, this soldier had seen American Military Police, didn’t want to get into trouble and ran away from them, thought that the front window was an alley because it was quite low, and crashed through it. The following day he comes back, has the window repaired, gives Bob’s father a bottle of whiskey.

So, there is a lot of positivity about the presence of black GIs, certainly from the GIs themselves, but we need to understand this in terms of the fact that the presence of these soldiers was transitory. So, this isn’t like mass immigration into the rest of the U.K. with the Windrush, where people are coming, they’re bringing their families, and they’re staying. Black GIs are there to win the war, they’re going to be here for a little while, and then they’re going to leave. And, for that reason, we don’t really see the development of racism, and we don’t have – I certainly don’t come across this in my research – that there’s any kind of adherence to particular notions of white supremacy that white Americans bring with them. That’s not to say there isn’t racism, that there aren’t stereotypes… If you look at newspaper reports about black GIs coming in, it’s littered with stuff about black Americans being musical, being superstitious, and all of these sorts of things, which are meant positively but actually reinforce a series of stereotypes.

Scott: 22:54
So, in general, relations between locals and GIs, both black GIs and their white counterparts, in Northern Ireland were good. Was there, however, any opposition from politicians or authorities to the presence of these American military men in Northern Ireland?

Simon: 23:15
It depends on who you talk to. Now, when the U.S. Government and the U.K. Government were planning the deployment, and this actually was being talked about hypothetically as early as February or March 1941 – so well before Pearl Harbour, Stormont was not part of the discussions. Stormont is told American forces are on the way. Now, from the perspective of Stormont and the Prime Minister, who at that point was John M. Andrews, they were delighted. It put Northern Ireland at the centre of the war effort, and it made Northern Ireland indispensable, particularly in the Battle of the Atlantic. So, Londonderry and Lisahally outside Londonderry become really important to the U.S. Navy. So, Unionist politicians at Stormont are delighted and Nationalist politicians are outwardly angry so when the Americans arrive, a couple of Nationalist politicians from Derry complain. One of them compared it to the Germans occupying Norway. De Valera, Prime Minister of Eire, also complains saying that he should have been asked because of Eire’s constitution, they claim Northern Ireland.

The British and American authorities didn’t tell De Valera until the Americans were pretty much ready to disembark. But, that’s kind of the limit of it. I think there’s a realisation that Eire’s claim over Northern Ireland is rhetorical and the Americans can come here, and the British can let the Americans come here, and there’s nothing they can do about it.

I think there’s also a sense that it’s not going to play well in the States if they keep complaining about the Americans. If they do this, then they are kind of denigrating what the Americans are fighting for, and what the Americans are dying for. So, for the most part, Nationalist politicians stay quiet about the Americans for the rest of the war. Now, what this does in terms of how the war is remembered, is that it becomes essentially a Unionist narrative about the war, whether it’s the war generally, or about the Americans specifically, it allows Unionists to talk about what the war was about, how the war is going to be remembered how the Americans behaved, and so on.

Now, what’s also noteworthy is that a lot of Americans were stationed west of the Bann. So, they were stationed in areas which had Nationalist majorities but what the Ministry of Information found was that this actually lessened tensions. Where there were Americans, they were made welcome and the Ministry of Information reports says because they were very difficult people to hate. The Americans were just too likable and even if you thought they were a foreign occupying force, they were still nice people. So, there is some hostility. There is brawling, there are attacks on American soldiers but they’re, you know, like them being assaulted under the blackout rather than terrorist attacks on them. Now, some of these attacks are claimed by the I.R.A., and some of them I think are claimed for the I.R.A., in the sense that they will claim responsibility for this and generate a wee bit of publicity about it.

There are problems which the Americans bring that transcend sectarian tensions. They bring crime, they bring obviously racism, and they bring their drunkenness and so on. But it seems that both communities broadly welcomed them.

Scott: 27:41
On their arrival to Northern Ireland, American troops were issued with a pocketbook, and in that pocketbook, they were instructed to not talk about religion and not talk about politics. This, however, didn’t stop politicians talking about the Americans, and one Unionist Member of Parliament, at the time, referred to local girls what he called ‘stepping out’ with black GIs saying that they were “mostly of the lowest type and belong to our minority”. Despite concerns such as these, Northern Ireland didn’t introduce a colour bar, and there were as you said, instances of racism, one of which brought General Benjamin O. Davis to Ulster. But, how did the time spent both in Great Britain and in Northern Ireland influence attitudes towards segregation in the United States Army?

Simon: 28:35
Well, the U.S. Army stayed segregated until 1948. The attitude of the U.S. Army – and this is really disingenuous – is that segregation isn’t discrimination. Black and white soldiers are supposed to be treated equally, what they would call separate but equal and this was never the case. I think there comes a moment, and there’s a debate going on in the States about this, that the principles that America is fighting for are undermined by segregation, by Jim Crow, by racism. Now, the Army’s or the Military’s attitude was that – and this is a bit of a cop-out – but that a global war wasn’t the time for social change, so the Army would remain segregated. The attitude of Eisenhower was that the military reflected the society it came from, and the society was segregated, therefore it made sense for the military to be segregated. But, it becomes increasingly unsustainable after the war.

There are instances where there is a little bit of integration, most famously during the Battle of the Bulge where the situation is so desperate that Eisenhower calls for volunteers from the service units or the Quartermaster Units that you mentioned, and other non-combat units. Several thousand African-American servicemen volunteer and they fight in integrated units, and obviously, they helped to repel the Germans, and Eisenhower was actually happy to continue this, but once the emergency was over, his superior George C. Marshall told him to revert to segregated units.

So, what this demonstrated to civil rights activists was that integration worked. But, it was the U.S. Military did research on this and they found almost universal hostility from white soldiers – whether from the north or the south – to integrated units. It was only when Harry Trueman issues an executive order in 1948, that the U.S. Military is finally desegregated.

Scott: 31:08
So, 80 years on in Northern Ireland, there remains a really strong interest in events that took place during the Second World War. One of your next areas of research will be in the area of memorialisation, looking at how Northern Ireland remembers the American presence here during the war. At the top of the podcast, I mentioned the memorial at Lisnabreeny. What monuments or memorials can people visit today that mark the time spent in Northern Ireland by the Americans?

Simon: 31:42
Well, the obvious one is the memorial column at Belfast City Hall. This was unveiled in January 1943 to mark the first anniversary, and a great military parade put on. One American newspaper called it the greatest spectacle seen in the U.K. since the start of the war. That was initially going to be at Dufferin Quay where the Americans disembarked, and it was initially going to be temporary but they decided quite quickly to make it permanent. When Eisenhower came in ’45, you know, he’s at the City Hall, and when President Clinton came in, I think it’s 1996, he rededicated the memorial. So, that in some respects is the most visible and central one.

I suppose the other main one would be the Rangers Museum in Carrickfergus, where Darby’s Rangers were formed in the summer of 1942. There’s now a museum to that. We also have the War Memorial Museum, which has moved from its original location but it has a copper frieze, which represents the Americans. It has two, one representing the Americans and one representing Northern Ireland’s industry.

One attempted memorialisation, or way of memorialising the Americans which didn’t come to fruition was turning Armagh Observatory into a planetarium to honour the Americans. The entrepreneurial and opportunistic head of the Observatory, a chap called Lindsay, was trying to get funding for it and this was his pitch to Stromont, and also to the Americans but it never came to pass.

You could also look at memorials to the Americans, which are less obvious. For example, the Strandtown Camp in Derry was turned into housing and there’s a little memorial there recalling the Nissen Huts, and after the war, in Strandtown and also in East Belfast – and this happened throughout the U.K. – families who had been rendered homeless by the war, took over these former American camps and some were eventually turned into housing estates. Actually, the one at Strandtown, I think remained in use until the 1960s and was seen as one of the triggers for the civil rights movement here over housing. So, there are memorials around if you want to look for them.

Scott: 34:42
Well Simon, I hope that that research goes well for you, and I also hope that maybe we’ll get around some of those sites together in the near future. It’s been a pleasure having you on the podcast. Can you tell us just one last time, what is the title of your book and where can our listeners pick up a copy?

Simon: 35:03
The book is called ‘Northern Ireland, the United States, and the Second World War’. It’s with Bloomsbury Academic, and you can find it on their website.

Scott: 35:15
Thank you, Dr. Simon Topping. I am sure many of our listeners will be eager to read more about this absolutely fascinating subject, and thanks for joining us.

If you would like to learn a little bit more about the Americans in Ulster, why not check out Episode 1 of our podcast ‘A Wee Bit Of War’, when we were joined by the wonderful Mary Pat Kelly to talk about her book and documentary ‘Home Away From Home’.

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