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From Omaha to Omagh

The first American soldiers to embark on European soil in World War II arrived in January 1942, a month or so after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. The first GIs arrived in Omagh shortly after that and made their way to the recently built Lisanelly Camp, as well as to the Santa Lucia Barracks, at the head of the Derry Road. For these young soldiers it must have come as something of a culture shock. It was also a culture shock for the people of Omagh.

The Americans were generally referred to as ‘Yanks’. Strictly speaking, Yankees are denizens of New England and the North-East states.

These soldiers, in the main, hailed from the states of the Mid-West and, apart from training at boot camp, would have seldom been further from their homes than their local county fair. The earlier detachments would eventually make their way to North Africa and by the June of 1944, to the beaches of Normandy. Various locations were requisitioned in other parts of Omagh, including the former Knocknamoe Castle, the fine mansion built for the Shaw family in 1875 and latterly known as Campbell’s Castle. The Castle accommodated officers of the American forces.

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Local legend has it that a top-brass military conference held there a week or so before D-Day and that the high command in attendance were General Bernard Law Montgomery and General Dwight D. Eisenhower, later President of the United States. When the Castle was converted to a hotel in the 1960s a suite was named after Eisenhower, on the strength of this story. The Castle perished in a fire in 1990.

The GIs had, in their earlier days here, little understanding of the local currency. They would hold out a handful of silver and copper, trusting to local shopkeepers to take the exact cost of the goods or services they had purchased. It could happen that a group of Americans would be offered a bottle of whiskey on a street corner, at a bargain price. When the soldiers opened the bottle they would find that it contained nothing stronger than cold tea.

There were three cinemas in Omagh during the war years. The old Star cinema on Sedan Avenue had been earmarked for closure on the opening of the County Cinema in 1940, but it did not become the Star Ballroom until 1948. Charles Donaghy, who operated all three centres, probably concluded that public order would be better maintained if the Star was maintained as a cinema, rather than to become a dance hall, given the rivalries there would be between British and American soldiers, not to mention the locals. No reports of anti-social behaviour by the GIs appeared in the Press.

There were film shows held exclusively for the Americans in the County Cinema and amongst the movie stars who showed up to boost morale were James Cagney and James Stewart, then serving with the United States Army Air Force and based in England. The American Army was strictly segregated along racial lines, the black soldiers being stationed near Carrickmore. A former projectionist recalled how, on one occasion, the Military Police advised the cinema staff that if there was any trouble, that, “They should light into Jim Crow.” Within minutes of the lights going down, there was a mini race-riot. Such was the innocence of the times that the manager was quickly on the phone to the Camp to enquire which of these soldiers was Jim Crow.

The GIs were generously supplied with stores of chocolate, cigarettes and chewing gum and were open-handed in distributing their bounty. They were a big hit with the local ladies. Some of the latter would paint a black line on the backs of their bare legs, to represent seams and to give the impression that they were wearing nylons, at the time a very scarce commodity. Local guys who had their eye wiped would complain that, “The Yanks were overpaid, over-sexed and over here….”

The story is told of an American soldier who dropped in to a light confectioners in Bridge Street, with a lassie on his arm. They were bound for the Lovers’ Retreat. He asked the shopkeeper if he could buy an orange for the lady, but he was informed that, owing to wartime restrictions, oranges could only be sold to expectant mothers. “That’s okay” he replied, “We’ll call in again on the way back.”

The Americans were, to a large degree, self-sufficient. They had their own bakery and their own laundry. Following Napoleon’s maxim that an army marches on its stomach, the troops were well-provisioned. They apparently took very seriously the ‘best before’ notices on foodstuffs and quite a lot of perfectly serviceable commodities such as tinned ham and tinned fruit were dumped at such locations as the Dump Bank, in Gallows Hill, which was an El Dorado, from which local families augmented their meagre war-time rations. The laundry was at Knocknamoe, but soldiers billed in the Courthouse would hang their washing out to dry form the windows and balconies of that classical building.

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The people of Omagh were entertained by concerts given by American military bands. Musical arrangements for these bands were much sought after by local bands. Military officers used to be guests of Brother J D Hamill, in those years, Principal of the Christian Brothers School. The officers would listen to gramophone records of classical music from Brother Hamill’s vast collection. The officers, in turn, would keep Bro Hamill well supplied with tobacco to fuel his enormous pipe.

Several local women married American soldiers and became GI brides. Very few of these couples settled in Omagh: the men were anxious to return to the States, the women were eager to be a part of the Land of Opportunity. Later in the war, the 552nd Division was billeted at Seskinore and were at the fore in supplying the Allied lines in Northern France in the period after D-Day.

Not all these soldiers survived the conflict. Headstones mark their final resting places all over Tunisia, Sicily, Italy, Belgium and Germany. Very few of this band of brothers are still alive and one wonders if they still remember their experiences in Omagh. The older generation in Omagh have not forgotten them.

• Titbits

In evidence the court heard that officials of the local municipal council had observed two people smoking cigarettes in a local hostelry, in contravention of the legislation prohibiting smoking in public places. A solicitor for the licensee acknowledged that on the occasion when the inspectors had visited the premises that there was smoking going on. However, he went on to explain that the individuals concerned were not smoking tobacco, but were puffing on electronic cigarettes. “As far as the council officers were concerned” said the RM, “There is no smoke without fire.

The Irish cabinet is to put a Bill before the Dail, designed to outlaw branded cigarette packets. Myles na Gopaleen’s poem had it that “A pint of plain is your only man.” Soon a packet of plain will be your only man.

The footballer Pele is threatening a legal action against Paddy Power, the bookies, for using the players name and image to promote business during the World cup. The bookies could always use the slogan, “Ag lmirt Peile” Irish for ‘playing football.

From ‘Ejection Seat’ TV quiz

Q. The American Beauty is the name of what kind of flower?

A. Self-raising.

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Ulster Herald is published by North West of Ireland Printing & Publishing Company Limited, trading as North-West News Group.
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