Museum delivers on 70-year-old promise

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A rediscovered WWII US Marine Corps commemorative plaque has revived memories of the time when Derry played a vital role in winning the Battle of the Atlantic.

A promise made in May 1943 that the plaque would be mounted in “an honoured position” will be fulfilled seventy years later when it goes on display, this weekend, at the Base One Europe-Beech Hill Camp Museum, located in the Beech Hill Country House Hotel, on the outskirts of Derry.

On May 12, 1943 the US Marine Corps, stationed at sites across Derry, including the Beech Hill, to guard the US Naval Operating Base Londonderry, held an anniversary parade in Guildhall Square.

Mark Lusby, Heritage Officer with the Holywell Trust, takes up the story: “The parade was a big deal at the time, judging from the media coverage and the presence of the Duke of Abercorn and Mayor and the crowds thronging the streets around the square and on the ancient city walls.

“Newspapers reported that the Marines’ Commanding Officer presented a plaque to the City of Londonderry as a token of everlasting friendship between the USMC and Derry. One article states: ‘While the Corporation have not yet decided the honoured position that the plaque will be in the Guildhall, in all probability it will be affixed to a wall in the Mayor’s Parlour where it will always be easily accessible to distinguished visitors to the Guildhall’.

“However, for reasons that have yet to be fully explained, the commemorative plaque never made it onto any wall in the Guildhall and was taken back to the USA by the Marines’ second in command in Derry, Lt. Col. James J Dugan. The daughter of the Lt. Col. Dugan, Martha Hopkins, has recently presented the commemorative plaque to the Base One Europe-Beech Hill Camp Museum to ensure it goes on display, as originally intended, in a prominent position to commemorate the US Marine Corps’ sojourn in Derry during WWII.”

Mark says the plaque is a tangible reminder of the US Naval Operating Base in Derry which, he says, made an important contribution to Allied success in the Battle of the Atlantic.

“Copies of the US Navy War Diaries, held by the Museum, show that, in May 1943, there were 2,555 enlisted men and officers of the US Navy stationed in Derry. Their role was to repair and refuel convoy escort vessels belonging to all of the Allied navies but with a particular emphasis on US Coast Guard and Canadian Naval vessels, who were operating out of Derry at that time.

“Guarding the ‘US Naval Operating Base Londonderry’ were 599 men and officers of the United States Marine Corps.”

Mark says the parade in front of Derry’s Walls seventy years ago was also the first public performance of the US Marine Corps Pipe and Drum Band. It had been formed a couple of months earlier after the local RUC commander challenged a claim by the US Marine Corps officers that their Marines could ‘do anything’.

This weekend, the local branch of the Royal Naval Association will unveil the International Sailor statue in Ebrington Square as a tribute to 100,000 mariners of all nations who lost their lives in the Battle of the Atlantic.

May 1943 marks the turning point in what is called the “longest, largest, and most complex” naval battle in history.