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15 October 2014
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American Soldiers in Omagh during WW2
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Contributed by 29 November 2004
The US War Arrives in Omagh
The arrival in Omagh of American soldiers had a major effect on the town and district. They were billeted in the Courthouse and at Knocknamoe Castle, in the former home of the Campbell family, and at new camps built in several surrounding towns and villages, including Fintona and Fivemiletown. And the town was the mecca for hundreds of troops on their nights out. They came from as faraway as their Clogher Valley billets and if they missed the last of their convoys of lorries back to base, they were stranded for the night.
Our young ears heard of strange, even violent, goings on but all were dealt with by the US military authorities without publicity. Schoolyard talk of suspicious deaths such as that of a black soldier named Ryan whose body was said to have been found near Abbey Bridge was one such claim. The North’s authorities aided and abetted in this silence through its censorship laws whereby newspapers had to submit all reports pertaining to security matters to the censors before publication. A reporter who worked locally during the war years, told me he never heard from the censors until the war ended when a tea chest containing his submitted reports arrived in the office, together with permission to publish them!
All the reports of violence were not confined to the US military however. One incident in a local café involved Inniskilling Fusiliers and some local ladies when Police were called to a riot situation. First through the swing door were two RUC Sergeants, one the most popular officer in town, the other the least popular. The latter saw the glass sweet bottle come flying and got down in time for the bottle to hit the second sergeant inflicting a serious head cut. The town was again in mourning, according to gossip, the wrong policeman having been struck!
A weekly visit to Omagh’s streets of a US military band playing the popular tunes of the times was much appreciated by the populace; less appreciated was the hanging of soldiers’ washing from the balconies of the Courthouse, then a US billet, and which was and still is the dominant building in the town’s High Street! It did not enhance the look of the county town.
The US army headquarters in Omagh and district was based at the Knocknamoe Castle which in post war years became the Knock-na-moe Castle Hotel and in which two rooms were named the Eisenhower and Montgomery Roms to commemorate a reported meeting there between the Allied commanders prior to D-Day.
A personal memory of the Americans is of doing messages for soldiers confined to barracks in the Workhouse which became a US base after the Green Howards had left. The soldiers when confined to barracks would have made their requests from atop of the boundary wall and would have paid with cigarettes, Camel or Lucky Strike. Cigarettes and in appropriate cases nylons seemed to have been a preferred currency in those days. Fortunately the free cigarettes ran out for this schoolboy before he became addicted to smoking.
Another memory is of an apparent more causal approach to military service by the GIs as compared to the British soldiers which was even reflected in attitudes to their officers. One difference is illustrated in a story told me years later by a soldier who spent most of the war years in Glasgow and whose duties lay in supply and maintenance. For one particular task he required to borrow a trailer from a nearby American camp and when the trailer could not be attached to his vehicle, he was loaned a jeep as well. A week later when he went to return the jeep and trailer, no-one in the American camp would accept responsibility for loaning them and my friend then became, for the duration of his service there, the only British soldier driving around Glasgow in a US army jeep.
The first German soldiers I saw were prisoners-of-war and were in a compound at Lisonelly Camp. I remember well the unfamiliar blue-grey uniforms. For some strange reason the compound was placed just inside the boundary fence and it soon became a “must-see” landmark on a Sunday afternoon walk for many of the townsfolk. Familiarity, instead of breeding contempt however, led in this case to many friendships across the fence and the discovery of hidden talents amongst the Germans. Many a clock or watch was passed through the fence for repair.
When peace came, the Germans were kept in Omagh for some time while preparations were being made for their repatriation. For one watchmaker home was in East Germany and under Russian control and he was, understandably, not enamoured by thoughts of going home.
By this time the POWs were allowed out during daytime to go into town or to go visiting in local homes. One day some anglers who were amongst his new found friends, persuaded the powers- that- be to allow them to take the German for a day’s lake fishing on Lough Melvin. After boarding the boat on the County Fermanagh side, they rowed across the border lake, and allowed him disembark on the County Leitrim shore where he was met by more friends. That was his last visit to Northern Ireland. Years later I met him in Bundoran and learnt he had` a thriving jewellery business in Sligo. He had married an Omagh girl who had apparently followed him across the border. Strangely she was the sister of the lady I had known him to have been “walking out with” in Omagh, before his “great escape”.
The end of the war was greeted with genuine relief by everyone but I personally cannot recall the parties held in bunting decorated street which apparently was the norm. My big celebration in 1945 was that I left school in that year and got my first job.
(Compiled by Teddy Quigley. October 2004: Date of birth: 14th May,1929)
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