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 Derrys historic links with the
United States. In an article in the Derry Journal
in 1999, Derry man, John Deehan, now living in Canada, recalled
Derrys 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
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. Columbs 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 wont need those here,
buddy, in Derry you dont 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
Two young servicemen rushed him into the Base clinic. A
car was sent immediately to pick up the boys 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
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
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 Yorks
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 youd ever seen....with
the top down.
Back then, when smoking was fashionable, the U.S. Navy were
issued with free cigarettes (today its 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,
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 hellva 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 Servicemens 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