Call for memories of local US base

Construction workers at the Creevagh Hospital in 1941-42. Copyright: Base One Museum/NARA.

Construction workers at the Creevagh Hospital in 1941-42. Copyright: Base One Museum/NARA.

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Local history buffs are calling on Derry people to share their memories for a new museum commemorating the United States naval base in the city.

This years marks the 70th anniversary of the commissioning of ‘Base One Europe’ - the official name of the local naval operation.

1942 also saw the arrival of US Marines to provide protection for the base - the Americans’ largest in Europe during World War II.

A community group dedicated to preserving Derry’s links with both the US Navy and US Marine Corps is now appealing for people with stories, photographs and artefacts to come forward.

The US Navy and Marine Corps Beech Hill Friendship Association is establishing a museum room and archive at the Beech Hill Country House Hotel at Ardmore on the outskirts of the city.

Later this year, trails will be created within the grounds of the hotel which will reveal the remains of one of the main accommodation camps which served Base One Europe.

Between 1941 and 1945, thousands of civilian workers from Derry and Donegal helped both in the construction of Base One Europe and in its operation.

Researchers with the Association now wish to collect memories from those workers and their families to ensure this part of our local heritage is properly preserved for future generations.

The new museum and archive will be officially opened in November of this year with a symposium to be held along with the Royal Navy in May.

The US naval operating base in Derry consisted of sites right across the district. They included a repair base at Fort George, an ammunition dump at Fincairn Glen and a hospital at Creevagh. Oil supplies and stores were delivered at Lisahally and accommodation was largely split between two camps at Ardmore and Springtown.

During the Second World War, Derry provided a hugely important base for the US Navy and Marine Corps.

But exactly how pivotal a part the city played in the Allied victory remained a secret until just recently.

More than 5,000 documents - which ever since 1945 have been marked top secret and kept under lock and key in Washington - are being declassified for the new museum at the Beech Hill Hotel.

The woodland area around the Beech Hill played host to Base One Europe during the war when some 500 marines were stationed there.

A wealth of information, not just on the day to day running of the camp but of letters to and from servicemen, are being released by the US military.

The North’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has made a grant of £93,909 towards the cost of the museum.

One of the driving forces behind the campaign to have the military release the up until now classified material from the Beech Hill camp is American broadcaster Mary Pat Kelly.

“It started for me in 1976 when I was working for Good Morning America,” she explained. “Through them, I came to Derry to do a documentary and, at the time, it was all about the political situation whereas I wanted to tell the story of the people here instead.

“That’s when I found out that there were 300,000 Americans who had come through here during the war and I knew that I had something that Americans were going to be interested in. Through another connection, I was working with the US Marine Corps and most people think that they were only in the Pacific during the war, but instead I found out that they had a base here. I’ve met with some of them and they have such wonderful stories to tell.”

Last year, American Deputy Consul General to Northern Ireland Kevin Roland attended an event at the Beech Hill.

He said he was astonished to discover the importance of the Derry base to the Marine Corps during the Second World War.

He said: “The museum here of this kind will be a boon to any amateur historian and I’m sure to many, many people who had family serving in this part of the world during the war. It’s also part of the rich fabric of Derry’s history.”

Bob Hope, Al Jolson and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt all visited the servicemen based there.

Anyone who wishes to contribute to the project should contact Mark Lusby at the Holywell Trust at mark@holywelltrust.com or on Tel: 07713 566719.