A stunning collection of images of Derry at the height of World War II will go on show at a special exhibition in the Base One Europe Museum at the Beech Hill Country House Hotel next month.
The exhibition - a total of 19 images depicting Derry in September/October 1943 - will coincide with the Royal Naval Association’s programme of events over the weekend of May 10-12 to mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic.
Remarkably, the images have not been seen here since they were painted seventy years ago.
Mark Lusby, a researcher with the Holywell Trust, explains how the exhibition came about.
“Holywell Trust is helping the volunteers in the Beech Hill Association to unpack this key part of Derry’s history,” he told the ‘Journal’. “We discovered that some paintings of the US Navy in wartime Derry had been exhibited in Palm Beach, Florida, in 1955 before being deposited in the US Navy Archives.
“The originals were too fragile to bring to Derry without some major immediate conservation work but, in the meantime, the US Navy Art Collection has kindly provided us with high quality digital copies.”
The collection of watercolours and charcoal drawings are the work of the late Dwight Shepler, the celebrated US Navy War Artist.
Shepler served in both Europe - participating in the Normandy landings in June 1944 - and the Pacific during World War II and was awarded a Bronze Star. After the War, he continued to paint and became President of the Guild of Boston Artists. He died in 1974.
Patsy O’Kane, Chairperson of the Beech Hill US Navy and Marine Corps Association, thanked the Curator of the US Navy Art Collection and the Public Affairs section of the US Consulate in Belfast for making the exhibition possible.
“These paintings provide a unique insight into war-time Derry and the Museum at the Beech Hill is pleased to be able to bring them to public attention during this key anniversary in Derry’s history,” she said.
The Beech Hill Country House Hotel helped establish the Beech Hill US Navy & Marine Corps Friendship Association, the objective of which is to preserve the history of the “US Naval Operating Base Londonderry” and the “Marine Barracks Londonderry” which guarded it from 1942-1944.
The Naval Base was constructed in secret from June 1941 and was code-named Base One Europe. It was formally commissioned as operational on February 5, 1942 and decommissioned on July 15, 1944.
It spread across 10 sites in the city and Foyle Valley, each with a specialist function; the Beech Hill Camp was the first accommodation camp for the “Bluejackets” and “Seabees” working on the Base and later became the headquarters for the Derry Marines. At its height, the USNOB had 5,000 US Navy, Construction Battalion and Marines personnel in Derry. After WWII, the radio communications sites were retained by the US Navy and operated as US Naval Communications Station Londonderry until 1977.
The legacy can still be seen today in close personal ties between Derry and the US and the imprint the base has left on the landscape of Derry. Some of the infrastructure created by the Americans in 1941 is still in daily use; other elements, like the accommodation camp in the woodlands around the Beech Hill, can still be traced through the imprints left by the Quonset Huts and the stencils on the perimeter fencing poles marked “fencing for Base One”.
The Association has established a museum room at the Beech Hill Country House Hotel which tells the story of Base One Europe and the Beech Hill Camp. Three miles of trails have been created through the woodlands around the hotel allowing visitors to trace the remnants of the camp. The Association has received advice and support from the US National Archives and Records Administration, the National Museum of the US Navy, and the National Museum of the Marine Corps.
The “Dwight Shepler: Derry during the Battle of the Atlantic” exhibition is being developed with the assistance of the Culture Company 2013 as part of the BT Portrait of a City project.
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