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American GIs in Wales

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 11:02 UK time, Tuesday, 12 October 2010

During World War Two nearly three million American soldiers and airmen were sent to Britain, most of them arriving in the years 1943 and 1944, prior to the D-Day landings in France.

Tenby harbour.  Image from http://www.istockphoto.com

General Dwight Eisenhower arrived in Tenby by train.

Wales housed more than its fair share of these exuberant and sometimes brash young men who were, in the opinion of many, "over paid, over sexed - and over here".

The "over sexed" comment was, perhaps, appropriate as there were over 70,000 GI brides in Britain by the end of the war. Even a small south Wales town like Barry produced no fewer than 56 of them!

There was virtually no part of Wales that did not see American troops and the constant children's cry of "Got any gum chum?" was heard on streets in towns as varied as Aberystwyth, Haverfordwest, Abergavenny, Swansea and Cardiff.

And it was not just chewing gum that the Yanks gave away - the Americans were incredibly generous, wherever they were stationed. As D-Day approached they happily presented the locals with cans of chicken, sides of beef or ham and tins of coffee, giving them out almost to anyone in need. For the people of Wales, who had been suffering from food rationing for several years, they were welcome gifts.

Barry, then an important port, became a huge hub for American servicemen, with over 40 ships eventually leaving the port to take part in the D-Day landings. They built a camp in the part of the town known as Highlight and used to take children from Cadoxton to picture shows, picking them up in their enormous six-wheeled army lorries. Never mind the cinema - for many of the Welsh children this journey was the highlight of the whole affair.

It was not all fun and games in Barry, however, and the ugly spectre of racism did rear its head on a number of occasions. Thompson Street in the town was eventually placed "out of bounds" after an American complained that he had seen a black soldier being served in one of the clubs in the area.

The club owners and the town council, well used to serving men of all races and colours - this was a dock area, after all - refused to ban black soldiers, and the American senior staff took exception and refused their soldiers permission to even walk down the street.

Mostly, however, relations between the Welsh and the Americans were much more cordial. Sometimes entertainment provided for the Americans was a little bizarre. As one Artillery Officer, stationed for a while in Denbigh, later recorded:

"Constant entertainment was provided in a public hall in the town or at a mental hospital on the outskirts."

The idea of holding a dance at a mental hospital seems now to be a strange one, but back in the 1940s these huge edifices were communities in their own right and the staff had, for years, organised their own entertainment. In Abergavenny things were a little more straightforward, as Christine Jones remembers:

"Abergavenny was full of Yanks, every night. They all wanted to know where the dances were being held. We used to have concerts every Sunday night in the Town Hall and there were dances every Saturday. In the Angel they used to have a place called a Doughnut Dugout."

Those who knew who and what to look for sometimes spotted famous faces. Rudolph Hess was regularly seen around the countryside, being driven out by his two armed guards, but he was a German and therefore nowhere near as interesting as some of the visiting Americans. Christine Jones was working as a telephone engineer:

"I went to Gilwern Hospital one day and was on this ladder against a pole. I was putting in the wire and Jimmy Cagney walked by. James Cagney! I lodged in Abergavenny at the time and the children where I was staying said 'Why didn't you get his autograph?' But he hadn't seen me and just walked by with two soldiers each side. I never thought of it until I got home and the children asked."

Haverfordwest hosted an equally famous American, one Rocco Marchegiano, better known as world heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano. Rocky was stationed in the area and while his boxing career only took off after the war, locals from the town still talk about fistfights between Rocky and his Welsh counterparts.

The nearby town of Pembroke Dock had an even more famous visitor when, on 1 April 1944, General Dwight Eisenhower - later President of the USA but then Supreme Allied Commander - paid an unexpected visit to the American 110th Regiment in the town's Llanion Barracks.

Eisenhower arrived in Tenby by train and was then taken by fast military convoy, complete with howling sirens and motorbike outriders, to Pembroke Dock. Despite chilly, damp weather he climbed into the back of a jeep to address the men, promising to have a drink with them on the day they crossed the Rhine.

Famous visitors were one thing but for most American GIs the brief period they spent in Wales was an interlude before the real business of war began in earnest. It was an experience most of them never forgot.

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Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    You mention Haverfordwest, Phil, and there were in fact a few more visits by GIs until well into peace time. I recall in 1948, I think, when I was 6, hearing of the arrival of such a group and of being advised by older boys of the mantra, "Got any gum, chum?" It worked like a charm. I approached a massive sergeant on St. Thomas's Green with the magic words and came away with an almost unheard-of 10-pack of Wrigley's Spearmint.

  • Comment number 2.

    My mother's brother, Levi Edgar Griffiths ("Edgar"), U.S. Army, was stationed somewhere in England during WWII, took a bus into Wales to see his Mamgu in Cwmllynfell. After a brief stay in Wales, he went back to his duty station. He was an Army Medic, served in the Battle of the Bulge where he was very badly wounded. Almost lost his leg, but fortunately, and after multiple operations, was able to get around with a brace from knee to sole of foot. He told some humorous stories about hearing comments from local people in Welsh, as they assumed since he wore an American uniform, that he didn't cop onto the language of Heaven. But being born in Brynamman, and speaking it all his life, he understood perfectly. Shocked a few when he responded, too.
    Mam's other brother, William Henry Griffiths, served in the British Army. At that time, he lived in Scotland, having married a lovely Scottish lass. Gu almost lost both her sons, but they managed to get out alive; great cause for rejoicing.
    All of them are gone now, but live forever in loving, happy memory.

  • Comment number 3.

    I have just come across the blog regarding the GIs in Wales. I was born and brought up on a farm in Pembroke and seem to remember GIs stationed at Holyland House - not far from the farm. They used to pass the farm and I remember standing behind the garden wall of the house and the GIs used to throw gum to us. My aunt knew one of them and he made her, what became known in the family, as a Texas cake. A sponge cake with buttercream iceing and something like mashed up Weetabix on the top. It became a family favourite.

 

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