Photographs at the Base One Europe Museum at the Beech Hill Country House Hotel evoke the day 70 years ago when the United States Marine Corps left Derry. Described in the US press as the ‘Irish Marines’, the Derry Detachment of the Marine Corps had over two years’ service here, guarding the US Navy’s Base One Europe on the Foyle. That service ended on August 9th 1944 when SS WILLIAM MITCHELL departed from Lisahally for the United States with the US Marine detachment on board, along with 24 tons of ordnance and Marine Corps material. Luckily for us, the Marine Corps Executive Officer, Lt Col James J Dugan, of Quincy, Mass. recorded the departure on his personal camera.
The local papers covered the departure of the Marines. The Sentinel reported that they given a great send-off describing “quayside scenes which told of the strong friendships which had been made between the citizens and the green-clad Marines”. Indeed, the US Navy Band was reported to have played ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’ and the ‘Battle Hymn of the Marines’. “Then as the ship steamed off came ‘Auld Lang Syne’, sung by those on the quay and by the Marines on the troopship”, the Sentinel added.
The departure of the US Marines was just part of the decommissioning the US Naval Operating Base, which had begun on July 15th and which continued progressively until November when all the sites which made up the Base were returned to the British Admiralty. The exceptions were the Radio Transmission and Receiving Stations in the Waterside, which on July 10th had been commissioned as “US Naval Radio Station, Londonderry”; a separate US Navy facility.
The departure of the US Naval Bluejackets, Seabees and Marines was not without controversy. In the Journal, the Derry Board of Guardians expressed concern about the dumping of surplus property by the Americans and the Chairperson mentioned his disappointment at not being able to contact the American authorities with a view to having some of this property sent to the workhouse. One of the Board members reported the experience of a friend who had witnessed the burning of bedding material and furniture: “The friend said to the American who was engaged in the job, ‘Can I have a pair of blankets?’ and he was told he could take them but the quicker he was round the corner, the better!” Others were not so fortunate. The Derry Standard reports the case of a girl and boy being charged of larceny of US Government property from the Corporation Dump, namely a folding bed, a camp chair, 28 spoons, 22 forks, 11 knives and soup ladle. The Journal reported the case of a bus driver arrested for attempting to remove fuel from the storage tank at the decommissioned Creevagh Hospital. In his defence he argued that when the Americans had been in occupation of Creevagh, they had never objected to providing him with a drop of fuel whenever he ran short.
But it was not only US personnel who were shipped out of Derry 70 years ago. In August 1994 the Derry Journal reported that upwards of seventy young Derry girls, wives of American Navy men and Marines had sailed on the ‘Marine Raven’ for their new homes in the United States; 25 had infants with them. “A large crowd had assembled on the quayside to bid them farewell and there were poignant scenes as the final parting was made. The American Naval Band played Irish airs as the young wives said a tearful good-bye to their people.”
On August 2nd, the Mayor of Derry Corporation, Senator FJ Simmons JP had hosted a farewell dinner at the Allied Officers’ Club and a farewell dance in the Guildhall. Mayor Simmons presented a framed watercolour of Derry to Commodore CC Baughman, Commandant of the US Naval Base. The Belfast Telegraph, in its feature on the dinner, reports that the watercolour was inscribed with the Derry coat of arms and the text “USA Forces. Presented by the City of Londonderry in appreciation and commemoration of their stay in the city 1942-1944.” Commodore Baughman responded by saying that the Derry had been ‘home’ for the American Service personnel, some of whom felt they wanted to make it a home permanently while others had decided to take back to the United States ‘part of the country’ with them, in the form of a life-partner. Both the Mayor and Commodore expressed wishes that relationships built between the City and the United States would continue long after victory was achieved.
Mark Lusby, volunteer researcher for the Base One Europe Museum explains the significance of this and other information collected at the Beech Hill: “ The records of the US Naval Base are not just about military history; they are also provide valuable insights into the social and economic life of Derry during WWII. Seventy years on, this shared history could be used to attract US visitors, students and investors to the City.”