Our American friends

Scores of American ex-servicemen, who were stationed at Derry's US Naval Base in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, arrived in Derry this week for a veterans' reunion. More than 150 ex-servicemen, anxious to take a nostalgic trip back to the North West, signed up for the trip down memory lane, which concludes on Sunday. Their arrival opens another chapter in Derry’s historic links with the United States. In an article in the Derry Journal’ in 1999, Derry man, John Deehan, now living in Canada, recalled Derry’s unique relationship with the US and, in particular, its servicemen and women. This is his story.

When I was growing up in Derry in the forties and fifties, one of the most common sights around town was the US sailor. Derry was a busy commercial port back then, and it was also visited several times a year by navies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (or NATO as it was commonly known), so we had sailors from all over the free world wandering throughout the city at any given time. However, like the British Navy, the Americans had a large base in Derry so they were very much a part of the community.

The American connection with Derry went back to 1917, but in early 1941, before the United States officially entered World War II, about 600 American ‘Civilian technicians’ arrived in the city to supervise the construction of a ‘few facilities’.

They were accompanied by more than 360 members of the ‘Cee Bees’ (Construction Battalion). Who were experts in building naval bases all over the world. By October of ‘41, an additional 600 CBs arrived and the workforce was further augmented by the recruitment of local labour.

As well as enlarging the city and Lisahally Docks, they built a large fuel depot, a repair facility, where Fort George now is, a 200 bed hospital on Browning Drive in the Waterside (which later became St. Columb’s chest hospital), and another medical unit at Creevagh.

Unlike many local employers, the Americans hired Derry people regardless of their religious beliefs. Indeed, before they built their own housing facilities at Springtown, many ‘Yanks’ befriended local families.

In one such case, an American was visiting a family in the bogside and one day commented to the lady of the house that he noticed she had no kitchen. “Naw, just that wee scullery”, she said. “Would you like to have a kitchen, Maggie”, he asked casually. She replied that she would, thinking no more of it. The next morning a squad of CBs arrived at the door, loaded down with tools and building supplies, and by the end of the day Maggie had a fully equipped, American styled kitchen, compliments of the US Navy.

Derry people would experience many such acts of kindness and generosity from the Americans in the coming years.

On Monday morning, December 8, 1941, twenty-four hours after the Japanese had attacked the US Navy fleet at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, all the ‘civilian technicians’, to the surprise of their local employees, showed up for work in their full uniforms.

Guys that for months they had casually called Hank, Pete or Steve, were now Captain Robb, Lt. Commander Snow, or chief Petty Officer Helms. America was at war and the pretending was now over.
As the war progressed, Americans arrived in Derry in greater numbers and mixed well with the local population - perhaps a little too well with the female population some local guys thought - and they were not too popular with the British Forces stationed in Derry either who commented loudly that the ‘Yanks were over paid, over sexed, and over here’ to which the Americans replied that the British were ‘underpaid, under sexed, under dressed, and under Eisenhower’.

Americans never quite got use to the wet Derry climate and had more than a few colourful comments to make about it, one being that ‘six months of the year Lough Foyle is in County Derry and for the other six months County Derry is in Lough Foyle’.

And to a new recruit arriving from the States, laden down with summer clothes, “You won’t need those here, buddy, in Derry you don’t tan.....you rust”.

The generosity and kindness of the US servicemen to the local people is now legendary. One day during the war a group of young Derry boys were coming in the road past the Navy Base when one of the lads, who suffered from epilepsy, a condition for which there was no known cure in Europe at the time, suddenly had an attack at the entrance to the base.

Two young servicemen rushed him into the Base clinic. A car was sent immediately to pick up the boy’s parents, and while the other boys were treated to ice cream and cookies, and had their clothes freshly laundered, the navy doctors went to work on their friend. The boy was treated and driven home, and once per month he and his parents were picked up by a Navy vehicle and taken to the Base for treatment until the epilepsy was under control.

On the two big American holidays, the 4th July and Thanksgiving Day, the Americans would rent a cinema and invite all the local kids to watch cartoons, and each would receive a large bag of sweets and ice cream, which was a ‘first’ for many of the kids. And at Christmas there was a party on the Base for kids and Santa was there, and each child received a gift.

If an American was invited to a Derry home he could arrive laden down with all kinds of foodstuffs and candy that was difficult to obtain because of wartime rationing.

The American barracks at Springtown Camp, which years later would become a place of shame in and embarrassment to the Londonderry Corporation, was home to the US servicemen and during the war many famous entertainers came to perform - Bob Hope, Al Jolson, Francis Langford and pianist, Eddie Duchin, to name but a few.

On a sadder note, for many of these young Navy men, Derry would be their last port of call before going into action in the north Atlantic. In one Derry bar frequented by U.S Servicemen, the owner would accept a wrist watch as security against a bar-tab if a sailor was short of money, with a promise to pay and pick it up when he came back from a mission. The barman would attach their name to the watch and keep it in a safe place.

After the Battle of the Atlantic, where the U.S. Navy suffered heavy casualties, this particular bar was left with a drawer full of unclaimed watches. The owner, to his credit, made every effort to return them to the families of the sailors.

The first American that I ever met was Pete Poulos, and I was absolutely awe-struck by him. Pete Poulos, Petty Officer, First Class United States Navy, was one of the electronic specialists brought over from the States to help set up the Communication Base in the Waterside, and was also involved in setting up several ‘top secret’ bases in Europe.

Like many Americans stationed in Derry, Pete started dating a local girl, Gabrielle Doherty, who lived on our street, and was a close family friend. Gabrielle brought Pete to our house to introduce him to the family. This was shortly after the war and the civilian population were suffering shortages of every kind. Items like soap, toothpaste, hair shampoo, and razor blades were almost impossible to obtain, and food and clothes were still severely rationed. Little wonder then that the adult men in my life were not exactly into ‘good grooming’ in those ‘backyard toilet’ days where bathing for the men in the house was done with a tin basin in the backyard.

When I first met Pete I thought he was the greatest looking guy I had ever seen. Not only did he look like a movie star, but he also talked like one. He had blonde hair that seemed to sparkle in the light, perfect white teeth, and his skin seemed to be a golden colour. I discovered later that it was sun tan. He shook my hand and talked to me like I was an adult, and seemed interested in what I had to say. He also gave me my first stick of chewing gum. Not knowing what it was, of course, I swallowed it. He laughed, gave me another, and showed me how to use it.

From then on I used to watch for him coming up the street to meet Gabrielle, and he always had a big smile for me, and stop and say a few words and give me a stick of gum - heady stuff for a seven-year-old.

He would be in civilian clothes and in a world where sad-faced men wore only black or dark suits that were somewhat ‘worn’, it was a great to see this great golden-haired guy with a big smile wearing a light beige, well pressed suit, sparkling white shirt, and gleaming sip-on shoes. He seemed to me, at least, to light up the whole street the moment that he appeared.

I was so taken with this ‘Yank’ that one day in school when the teacher asked the class, “what do you want to be when you?”, I answered with the naiveté of a seven-year-old, ‘An American’, to the howls of the other kids.

Gabrielle and Pete got married and moved to the United States. Pete left the Navy and went to work in the Electrical Design Department of the Navy Shipyard in Newport News, Virginia, where he would remain for the next 32 years, rising to an executive level. When I moved to the U.S. in the 1960s I renewed my friendship with them, and we have remained close ever since. Pete Poulos lost his fight with cancer on December 4, 1997.

He was the first American I ever met and because of him I developed my love and fascination for that country. He was my first grown-up friend and role model; because of him I developed my first feelings of self-worth and an idea of the kind of person I wanted to become. To me, at least, he was the greatest ambassador the United States has ever had. Alas there will be no mention of Pete Poulos or his like in the history books, and no movies will be made of his life, but be sure that it was because of such men that the United States became great.

My two sons were born in the United States, and my oldest boy, Frank, decided to make the Navy his career ten years ago. He is now a Petty Officer First Class U.S.N., and served four years on the aircraft carrier, U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, a great ship built in the Newport News shipyard, with its electrical systems designed and installed by Pete Poulos - the circle is complete.

Today, no matter where we go in most western countries, you find that everyone seems to dress and look alike. Jeans, T-shirts, zip-up jackets, and running shoes. On New York’s once chic Fifth Avenue you no longer see that sharp ‘New York’ look that so impressed me in the movies of the fifties, and when I first arrived there in the sixties.

In London now the bowler-hatted, umbrella toting ‘city gent’ that was for so long a British trademark has vanished completely. In Toronto one morning, I saw a young mother taking her son to school. The woman was quite obviously a newly arrived Iranian, she was wearing the traditional ankle length black robe with a veil covering her face, but the little boy was wearing jeans, running shoes, and a baseball jacket and cap.

It was different when I was growing up. If an American walked down a street in any city in the world, everyone could tell that he was a ‘Yank’ just by looking at him. They stood out. They had the ‘crew cut’ hair, sun-tanned face, light coloured suit, bow tie and an air and swagger about them. They all seemed to walk like Robert Mitchum. They were usually smoking a cigar, a habit that only the wealthy could afford anywhere else, and if they were driving they had the biggest, brightest car you’d ever seen....with the top down.

Back then, when smoking was fashionable, the U.S. Navy were issued with free cigarettes (today it’s a smoke free Navy). To the Derry lads, who were mostly unemployed, smoking was an expensive luxury, every Park Drive and Woodbine was puffed down to the tip. The ‘Yanks’, on the other hand, would, would take a few puffs and then flick the butt away. I remember walking up the Strand Road one day with a friend of mine (who smoked). He was looking at the footpath and said, “There must be a Yankee ship in”. “How do you know?”, I asked. “The butts are bigger”, he replied.

As with everything else, once the Americans realised the value of cigarettes to the local people they were quite generous with them, and many a Derry family who had American friends, were well stocked with Pall Malls, Chesterfields, Lucky Strikes, and Camels.

When I became a musician I got to play at several parties and dances held in the Clooney Base, and I remember Lt. Ed Proctor teaching the band how to play a tune called ‘The Bunny Hop’, which was one of their favourite dances. I made many friends at that Base and was always struck by how casual the enlisted men and officers were with each other compared to the rigid separatism that was so obvious between officers and enlisted men when our band played at R.AF. station, Ballykelly, and H.M.S. Sea Eagle.

This was demonstrated more recently when my wife and I were visiting our son whose ship had just returned to Norfolk, Virginia, from the Persian Gulf. While we were standing talking on the pier, A U.S. Naval Admiral came over, slapped my son on the back, and said, “Hey Red, you guys did a hell’va job over there”.

The U.S. Navy were still based in Derry when I left in 1965, but pulled out, I understand, in 1977. The Americans were great friends to the people of Derry for many years and left us with many happy memories of countless acts of kindness and generosity. Long before ‘Free Derry Corner’, the U.S. Navy base on Clooney Road was, in my opinion, the first and only place in northern Ireland up to that time where I saw the actual benefits and rewards of living in a true democracy.

When I moved to the United States in 1965, I found the American people to be just as warm, friendly and generous as those I had met in Derry. I was made welcome from the first moment that I arrived and never felt homsick for one second all the years that I lived there.

I returned to Derry in 1986 for a holiday after a twenty-one year absence and one day happened to be passing the site where the Naval base had been located on Clooney Road.

The British Army were the new tenants and where there was once beautifully landscaped married quarters, and the cozy little Servicemen’s Club, where I remember great parties and dances, there was now a sentry box, barricades, armed guards, and barbed wire.

Courtesy of the Derry Journal August 2003
written by John Deehan