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U.S. Navy at Plymouth, Devon by Ken Roberts - Part One

by Ken Roberts

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
Ken Roberts
Location of story: 
Plymouth, Devon
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
01 December 2005


The US Navy arrived in Plymouth at the end of 1942 or early 1943; the first US naval personnel I ever saw were, in fact, US Coastguards. The US Navy's 97th Construction Battalion, or Sea Bees for short, took over Shapter’s Field at Cattedown and within two or three days almost filled it with Quonset huts (laundry, ablutions, mail office, and a cobbler’s shop, the rest being barrack rooms). Very few more days and the Sea Bees moved about a mile along toward the harbour at Coxside and started to build a huge base known as Queen Anne’s Battery (which I had never heard it called before - it was always "Coxside" to us local residents). This took almost twelve months or possibly more; I remember that by the time I left school and started work in H.M. Dockyard (March, 1944) the US Navy base had been operational for some four or five months. I knew that because a group of us lads from Julian Street went over there very frequently to watch the building progress

At the Dockyard Naval Stores Department it was noticeable that the USN trucks were being issued with huge supplies of construction items such as timber, steel structurals, nuts and bolts, copper tubing, welding rods, fire extinguishers and so on. The sailors never seemed able to understand that we were frequently out of stock of many varieties; "Why don't you order up larger quantities of stock ?", they would naively suggest, not realising that the shortage of materials was caused by the Luftwaffe’s bombing of supply lines up and down the U.K.

After months of labour, assisted by great numbers of cranes, trucks, bulldozers, fork lift trucks and so on, the base became known as US Navy Advanced Amphibious Base. The Supply and Training functions, when the crews had been learning how to beach nose first without the craft becoming wrecked, discontinued. Two mooring blocks or pillars had been built about 75 yards out from the beach, and the beach itself now boasted four or five variously-sized slipways capable of accommodating landing craft up to and including LCTs - Landing Craft, Tank. More commonly slipped were the LCVPs (Vehicles and Personnel) and these had been used mainly for training the crews on how to beach. Obviously not all the seamen reached a degree of skill good enough to invade Europe and some of the LCVPs quickly became damaged so badly that they had to be repaired and then contained more welded patches than original bodywork.

The welding process itself was relatively new to those of us who observed Royal Navy ships in the Yard being almost completely rivetted. The difference between welded and rivetted ships' bodywork became strikingly obvious when they were moored alongside one another : the welded hulls presented more of a patchwork appearance. Many a patriotic ex-Royal Navy dockyardie thought welding was a cheap and nasty way of shipbuilding. It has to be said that those of us who indulged in the sport of throwing rivet burrs long distances into No 3 Basin at North Yard very much preferred rivetting - rivet burrs were plentifully strewn around the dockside and could be thrown much, much further than stones of the same weight.

At QAB the LCVPs, sometimes referred to by the Yanks as "Higgins Boats" (after their designer), were forever motoring in or out on trips other than training. Together with a number of US Army towboats they were also used for fetching stores from the Dockyard and for ferrying stores and personnel to and from ships in Plymouth Sound. Those of us who were floating about the Coxside waterfront on odd pieces of timber were often thrown into the water by the bow waves of LCVPs which sped in, doing a tight U-turn around the mooring posts and then coming to a halt. Those of us unable to swim hung on to the pieces of timber rather than drown.

So what made the US Navy's bases in Plymouth such an attraction to us teenagers ? Mainly, we were there for what was being given away. The Yanks were friendly, amiable, generous and willing to give away anything which they did not want or need. In those days of food and clothing rationing, shortages of anything which had to be imported, lack of money and the severe curtailment of anything under the heading of entertainment, QAB and Shapter’s Field were paradise. If all else failed we would throw stones at targets in the water to pass away some time until something more entertaining or acceptable turned up.

One regular daily occurrence was the burning (by the USN) of unwanted or undelivered mail from the States. I never found out why such vast amounts of mail became unwanted; perhaps it was largely addressed to sailors who had moved to different bases or ships. Whatever the reason, a huge pile of packages containing newspapers, comic papers and magazines would be tipped out the door of the Mail Shack on to the ground which sloped away to the sea.

Here it would be liberally doused in paraffin (or kerosene, as it was known while still belonging to the US Navy). The reason for this was two-fold - to make it burn better and to discourage us boys from taking it away. We would, however, hide under the Mail Shack and pull in great handfuls of mail whilst the packages were still dry, concentrating on the most likely-looking ones; we knew from experience which packages were likely to contain dollar bills from home. Local shopkeepers had no objection at all to changing $ for £sd at the discounts we were willing to accept. We would save up the dollars and sell five for a pound when the official rate was four.

The kerosene was stored in a 45-gallon drum mounted horizontally and fitted with a tap (or faucet, I suppose). A large percentage of the contents would be carried away (not by the USN) in tins or bottles to the houses in Coxside and Cattedown. There was no fighting or arguing over possession of the paraffin -we were all in the same war - and paraffin was one of the fuel items in short supply.

Apart from the occasional dollar bills enclosed with the newspapers, comics and magazines ( on one memorable day a ten dollar bill ! ) the magazines themselves were very collectable; all the popular periodicals were among those dumped for burning including Time, Life, Newsweek, Saturday Evening Post, Esquire and more local newspapers from all over the States. We let the newspapers pass on for burning, although the younger lads would remove the comic sections first. Comic books would regularly turn up, ones such as Captain Marvel, Superman, Spiderman, Catwoman, Batman, Detective and so on.

Comic books could be taken to school and, as well as packets of chewing gum, exchanged for cash (with the rich lads). There must have been a dozen or more different brands of gum available but, being a non-chewer of gum the only ones I can name now are Beechnut, Doublemint, Beman, PK and Wrigley. All were packed in the long, narrow, square section packs which are now common in this country. British gum at that time came in squarish packs of four or five pieces and could be obtained from wall-mounted machines until sweet rationing put a stop to that. The machine would supply one pack in return for a halfpenny coin and some machines gave two packs for every fourth coin. Needless to say, we would hasten to put a coin in as soon as three other people had patronised the machine. We also had a secret mark on one point of the "turn" knob so that we could tell at a glance how close we were to the big time double delivery.

Other "candies" originating (as far as we were concerned) from the US Navy included Hershey bars, tubes of Lifesavers (about the size of today's Polo mints but of boiled sweet flavours; perhaps that should be spelled "flavors") and real chocolate.

More nutritious food than gum or candy could be found on the beach. For some reason, there were always plenty of brand new cans of food rolling about in the shallows. The only damage to these cans was that caused by the action of the tides, i.e. sometimes the imprinted black lettering would have become worn off. (All the US Navy tins were identified in black lettering - not even the name of the firm supplying the contents appeared in colour (color !)). But we could narrow down the contents fairly accurately from experience and we would sometimes carry away armfuls of corned beef, chopped ham with egg yolks, beetroot, sweetcorn, potatoes and so on, all of which were very welcome as additions to the family's wartime rations.

Cans of self-heating soup were very popular among those of us who knew whereabouts to look for them. They came in several flavours including tomato and mushroom but my favourite was celery. The procedure for dealing with the soup involved removing the airtight seal and applying a match to some kind of wick in the top of the can; after several seconds a mixture of chemicals would ignite like a firework and burn its way down a tube in the centre of the can, the sparks gushing up about four inches above the top of the can. After about twenty seconds the ring-pull could be removed, enabling the soup to be poured. This was a very handy way of taking food on a cycle trip, among other expeditions. Today (in 2005) it is a common item, of course, in sailing and other outdoor activities.

Yet another source of free food was the USN garbage service; the bins would very often contain sealed packets of coffee, sugar and cheese, silver foil sachets of orange and lemon drink powders, together with discarded K rations, tins of meat, vegetables and evaporated milk. Sometimes, in order to get at sources of goodies of one type or another, it became necessary to resort to trickery; one way of shifting the SP (Shore Patrol) was to jam a stick between the seat and the hooter of a nearby vehicle, the resultant noise giving us enough time to liberate whatever it was we wanted. Another method was to throw two or three empty cartridge cases, with their detonators still live, into the constantly burning USN bonfire and wait for the SPs to investigate (which they did fairly swiftly). No problem at all in obtaining small arms ammo — most vehicle glove compartments had something stowed away - mainly .38 and .45 in small amounts.

USN vehicles were left around unguarded, with little thought of security or danger to children who might play on or in them. More often than not, keys would be left in the ignition switch of vehicles fitted with keys, whereas USN jeeps did not have keys — just a switch. There were thirty seven jeeps based at QAB/Shapters Field, all numbered in yellow paint, J 1 to J 37. Some also carried nicknames on the rear canvas.

Approaching the USN drivers for goodies often proved to be fruitful. Literally fruitful, because the USN were supplied as a matter of routine with commodities which the civilian population would call luxury items; things like oranges, bananas, pineapples were literally unobtainable in the shops. But we managed to obtain supplies of these via the USN by various methods including barter. Surprisingly, some of us would loan money to the USN seamen in return for cartons of cigarettes, fresh meat sandwiches (which we would take home for the family), items of clothing such as trousers, fur-lined jackets, shirts, socks - all of which were not otherwise obtainable without our parents surrendering "clothing coupons" in the civilian shops of Plymouth.

Very soon after the USN took over QAB and Shapter's Field, almost every boy in Julian Street (schoolboy or young worker) was in possession of USN uniform outfits; not the "walking out" clothing, but "working rig". This consisted of dark blue dungarees and light blue "button through" shirt (not very common in UK shops at that time) with a white hat, this outfit being worn by sea-going sailors or "gobs". Land-based personnel, which included the Seabees, wore trousers and shirt of dull green with a variety of hats of the same colour. Most of the hats were of the "baseball cap" type but quite a few worn in winter were woollen, capable of being folded down to cover the ears; these were also available in dark blue or black.

End of Part One.

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