For many American servicemen during the 60s and 70s Londonderry was home from home and seeing a US sailor around town was far from an unusual sight. Londonderry was a busy commercial port and it was also visited several times a year by navies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation ( NATO as it was commonly known), so there were sailors from all over the world wandering throughout the city at any given time. However, like the British Navy, the Americans had a large base in the city so they were very much a part of the community with many of the sailors housed in barracks in Springtown.
Gordon Bauschka, RM RM, reflects on his time in the city when he was stationed at U.S. NAVCOMMSTA - a radio facility which was established as an integral part of the Naval Operating Base, operating until it was disestablished on September 30, 1977, ending a 35-year history of U.S. Naval communications in Londonderry.
“Ah, NCS Derry in the 60s. I was there from June 66 to May 69. What a great place!,” said Gordon.
“Petrol on the base cost a quarter a gallon (an imperial gallon no less), it was a couple of shillings for a good pint of beer and the movies cost a couple of bob.
“I remember the torn-tape relay, the wire room, crypto, the infamous MAPU machine and that circuit we had with the blokes (mostly WRENS) in Whitehall that used to drive us nuts.
“We had Friday nights at the club in coat and tie and I remember how the mid watch would relieve the eve watch early and having to march through housing after a personnel inspection.
“There was Bridgett the blind telephone operator who never had a misplaced call, the bus runs, Borderland, hearing “pass the time” at Ken’s Den, the commissary in the Quonset hut with two isles - I could go on and on and on.
“One of my many most memorable times was when I went hunting with Rick Cavazos and Don Decker. I had bagged a pheasant, but as I approached the bird it jumped up and started to take off.
“Well I shot it again but it was only a few feet away, and with a 12 gauge, well, there just wasn’t much left.
“Rick tried to piece it together, but no luck. After that I earned the name ‘Great White Hunter’, and they wouldn’t let me go hunting with them again.
“Most people are surprised when you tell them that the US had a base in Ireland. I guess it was a well kept-secret, which is alright with me, it makes it even more special.”
Chuck Pattinson was also stationed in Londonderry from 1965 to 1967.
With the Northern Ireland Government banning the import of any American food or meat into the country, the US sailors still managed to find a way to get their taste of home.
“The NI government wouldn’t allow Americans to bring in any food or meat into Ireland so Joe Thigpen and l got together and drove his car to Belfast and got on the ferry to Scotland,” explained Chuck.
“We got on a bus or in a taxi cab, my memory is not too good, to the Air Force base at Prestwick and we took AWOL bags with us to put the meat in. They had a zipper across the top so you not see inside.
“We went directly to the commissary store and filled up two carts full of bologna, salami and pepperoni and brought it back to our base which we also passed a good bit of it around to friends and neighbours.
“One interesting thing happened on the way back to our base. Joe and I were sitting on these wooden benches on the ferry with our AWOL Bags between our feet. I saw this lady with her dog when we sat down but didn’t think anything about it.
“Well this dog started barking. Joe and I started thinking that damn dog was going to get us in jail. We looked down at the AWOL Bags and the bottom of the bag was getting wet, some of the meat was thawing out. We did the only thing we could think of and that was move down away from the dog. That seemed to take care of things.
“When the ferry docked Joe and I got off that boat as fast as we could, got in the car and headed home to Derry laughing and cutting up about what just happened.”
The U.S. Naval Radio Station was established as a separate activity from the U.S. Naval Operating Base (NOB) on 10 July 1944 and it was ultimately to become U.S. NAVCOMMSTA Londonderry where John ‘Jack’ King served.
He has fond memories of the numerous dance halls the service men visited when they were based in Londonderry.
“I remember Ma Malloy’s steak and eggs and getting fresh milk during the war. There were ‘sorties’ over the border in civilian clothes and also trips to Bangor and Belfast.
“I remember Tommy and Sydney Bradley from The Diamond Bar. Tommy was a wonderful Tap Dancer and I think he passed away 1989 in Deal, England. Sydney passed away in 1993 in Rathmullan, County Donegal.
“There were so many places, the Corinthian Ballroom, the Cameo Ballroom, the Embassy Ballroom and the Rialto Theatre on Market Street across from the Wall.
“There was Ken Gallagher from Ken’s Den, and a few other ‘happening’ places back in the 70’s
“The Telstar, up in Creggan, Tee Total Taxis on Bridge St and the Johnny Quigley All Stars band.
“I remember Willie Laughlin, who worked for Peerless Laundry. Willie was presented with an O.B.E. the first week in January 2001, by Queen Elizabeth, in recognition of his charity work.
“There was also George O’Donnell, John Fegan and Jimmy Patton who were the only civilians who worked at the base from start to end.”
“Then there was Big John Crumley, who was the Head Groundsman and he used to provide bunches of flowers to Navy wives during the summertime.”
For more information on U.S. Navy Sailors and Civilians who served at the U.S. Naval Communication Station, Londonderry, Northern Ireland, and its predecessor Londonderry area United States Naval facilities: Naval Operating Base (NOB), NAVRADSTA (NRS), and NAVRADFAC (NRF), visit: http://navcommsta-londonderry.free