Iwo Jima bagpiper legacy amongst Beech Hill’s rich heritage
LORD Mayor Freddie Simmons was fed up listening to strapping US Marine commander Lieutenant Col. James J. Dugan tell him how great his men were shortly after they arrived en masse in Londonderry in 1942.
The largest American naval base in Europe - ‘Base One Europe‘ - had just been established in the city and the Marines sent to protect it were billeted in the grounds of the Beech Hill estate in Ardmore
‘The Few, and the Proud’ - as their nickname had it - weren’t so few, with up to 500 stationed at Beech Hill camp between 1942 and 1944.
But Col. Dugan clearly embodied the fierce pride of the Marines implied by the Corps’ unofficial motto.
It was more than Mayor Simmons could stand, however, to listen to an encomium on the Corps’ brilliance from the big Bostonian and so at some civic function or other he apparently exclaimed: “You think they can do anything but you can’t play the bagpipes.”
The taunt soon backfired and a few weeks later Col. Dugan established the first ever Pipe and Drum Band in the Marine Corps just in time to play at the Londonderry Guildhall on the first anniversary of the Marines’ arrival in the city. The band still exists. Members, it’s believed, later piped the US Marines ashore at Iwo Jima.
It’s one of the many intriguing yarns uncovered by the Beech Hill US Navy Marine Corps Friendship Association (USMCFA) which last week announced it had received a grant of £93,909 from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) to help establish a new museum and archive that will bring a staggering 5000 declassified US government documents to the Beech Hill Country House Hotel.
There are also tales of visits to the ‘Base One Europe’ naval base paid by such luminaries as Bob Hope, Al Jolson and King George VI.
Irish-American film-maker and Project Co-ordinator Dr Mary Pat Kelly has been chronicling the Marine Corps heritage in Londonderry for twenty years and likes the story of the exchange between the Mayor and the Marine.
“One of the stories I like is that the head of the Marines was the big, tall red-headed Jim Dugan who was at an event with the Lord Mayor of Derry, who I think was getting tired of hearing all about the Marines,” she told the Sentinel.
“He said: ‘You think they can do anything. Well, they can’t play the bagpipes.’ A month later they had a bagpipe band, which still exists. There are all kinds of stories,” she added.
Dr Kelly has pointed out that as well as pictures and files on the band the Beech Hill museum has a specially designed emblem which Col. Dugan designed for them, with a shamrock and the marine symbol.
There is also the poignancy of the piping ashore of the Marines at Iwo Jima - the fiercest battle of the Pacific conflict - by members of probably the Londonderry-founded band.
Dr Kelly said there are lots of fascinating stories like these waiting to be discovered and that the new files will be of huge interest to both local people interested in tracing family connections to the Marines as well as to members of the Londonderry diaspora in the US and to the wider Marine fraternity.
For example, everyone has heard of the Londonderry GI brides who married members of the American Forces stationed in and around Londonderry during the war.
The new archive promises a deeper look into the real life stories behind the phenomenon.
Dr Kelly explained: “We have letters from young women in Derry. Permission to marry letters. They had to write to the commandant to say that they wanted to marry this man and they really loved him and so on. So that’s all really interesting.”
One back issue of the ‘Derry NOB (Naval Operating Base) News - the only paper published exclusively for US Navy Personnel in the ETO (European Theatre of Operations) - refers to a romance between one serviceman and a local girl.
“Johnny Doughboy Found a Rose in Ireland” is the way we sing it,” Derry NOB News on Saturday, February 1944, proclaimed.
“But one of the bluejackets on board has changed the words slightly to: ‘A Navy Bluejacket Found a Rose in Ireland,’” “The Bluejacket, Edward Leon Brown, Carpenter’s Mate, 2nd class, Lakewood, PI, met and married his wife, Doreen Zita Brown, a resident of Londonderry a year ago tomorrow.”
Dr Kelly said it is personal stories like these that really come to life through the letters, the muster rolls and the other classified documents they have uncovered.
“The hope is that when this is open and when people come and look at the records we have they’ll also leave their memories,” she said. “I just heard two people tell me of their own families’ encounters.”
Whilst last Wednesday marked an important stepping stone in making the archive a reality there have been almost 20 years of hard work leading up to it.
Dr Kelly said: “It’s been a long process and the great breakthrough today is that because of this grant we have been able to both find and digitise the official government records that tell the story of WW2 in Derry and also the Beech Hill.
“The initial process started back in 1992. I did a documentary called ‘A Home Away From Home: The Yanks in Ireland.’ I would bring veterans over we would always stay here because it’s such a wonderful place to stay.”
During that time many of the visitors visited the site of the original prefabricated hut camp at the Beech Hill and carved their name on the bark of the ‘Marines tree’ deep in the hotel’s woodland.
“Different families would come here. The Marines themselves came. But the missing link was getting official government records and that’s what we’ve been able to do with this grant,” she said.
The grant was secured last year and since then work has been ratcheted up in compiling and digitising the archive.
“We began collecting the records and cataloguing them and then actually copying them. So now we have the muster rolls, a list of everyone who ever served here, we have copies of the newspapers they published here every week,” said Dr Kelly.
USMCFA hopes the museum will be open to the public in time for the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Marines next year. It will include documents, photographs, film and other artefacts.
“The 70th anniversary is coming up,” said Dr Kelly. “They came 70 years ago in May 2012 and a group of Marine veterans are coming over then to celebrate the event.”
Equally, the timing of the museum’s opening could not have been better given Londonderry’s status as UK City of Culture 2013.
Col. Dugan’s triumphant bagpipe display at the Guildhall in May 1943 is ripe for commemoration in 2013.
“That was held in May 1943 and that’s going to be exactly 70 years ago in 2013 when the City of Culture celebrations are underway,” added Dr Kelly.
Secretary of the USMCFA and owner of the Beech Hill Hotel Mrs Patsy O’Kane - for whom the new development is both a labour of love and an opportunity to sustain tourism in the Ardmore area - said she was delighted to have secured the £94k in funding required to make the project a reality.
“I’m very excited. I’ve always had a great vision for this project. It had become part of my life. We kept trying and trying and trying and in hospitality you have to come up with new ideas all the time.
“I felt this was definitely something that would work. I’m so happy the Department of Agriculture and Assisting Rural Communities North West (ARCNW) shared my vision,” she told the Sentinel.
“It will help the rural area through tourism. It’s a great, great day and great news. I couldn’t have done it without the funding. It would have cost so much money to get all these files digitised. I just didn’t have that sort of money and I knew that the project would never go ahead without it,” she added.
Mrs O’Kane told the paper the hotel would also be continuing its investment in the scheme by giving up a hotel bedroom to make way for the museum and retraining staff.
She said: “I think the grant is something around £95k but we are also giving up a bedroom to house the computers for the research. It will also be time. There will be the education of the staff in a new project and a new facility so there is going to be quite an investment.
“The idea was to try and make my business more sustainable, to create some employment. That’s the bottom line. I thought this was the best way. We are always told to be creatively different and innovative.”
She said the links between USMCFA, the Londonderry diaspora and the wider Marine Corps fraternity are strong already and will only grow stronger with the opening of the new museum.
“Even the links with the Marine Corps association are getting stronger by the day. Certainly, very senior Marines have given their rubberstamp to the project,” she said. “They are a very close knit organisation. They will constantly be telling their family and friends to come. Even now we would have a lot of American guests whose father or grandfather was based there. It’s already beginning.”
Local historian George McLaughlin said he was very impressed with what the Beech Hill has planned.
“I think it’s a fantastic development. They deserve a lot of credit here for all the work they’ve put into it.
“There’s been a lot of foresight here as well. That’s what it requires at times for people to actually think ahead and be creative.
“Making these connections. Every single new contact makes all the difference in terms of tourism development, bringing people to Derry, bringing people to the area.
“The more contacts you have the better and you have to build on that all the time.
“With City of Culture coming up you have to try and cash in on every little opportunity, the timing is just right.”
A US visitor holidaying in Londonderry who called into the launch event on Wednesday believed the archive would garner strong support in the US.
“I think there would be great support for this in America,” he told the paper. “I’m just on holiday here and heard about this and wanted to come by and have a look.”
Dr Kelly said the new museum will finally tell the full story of an incredibly important part of Londonderry and the USA’s joint history.
“I think the hospitality that Derry people have shown always made this - literally - a ‘Home Away From Home,’” she said. “These soldiers then went on to fight in some of the worst battles of WW2 with this memory.”
“I think historians and students will be interested but it’ll also allow ordinary people to come along and look up the records maybe to see their grandfather’s name. Maybe to see the name of family members in Derry who interacted.
“I’m sure many people have vague stories in their background but to actually get the real documents will be good.”
Speaking after a visit to the site, DARD Minister Michelle O’Neill said: “This exciting project will increase awareness among the local community, visitors, veterans and military historians of the cultural heritage of the Beech Hill Camp and the dramatic role which Derry played in WWII.
“Local people who lived during that period in the Ardmore area will be encouraged to share their memories which will add to the unique archive material for generations to come.”
The Minister added: “I believe this is a positive endorsement of the Rural Development Programme in the North West and will add significantly to the tourism product in this area.”
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Saturday 18 May 2013
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