BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

17 October 2014
your place and mine
Your Place & Mine Radio Ulster Website

BBC Homepage
BBC Northern Ireland
greater Belfast
contact ypam
about ypam

print versionprint version

Contact Us

GIs return to Down

WWII veterans of the US 1st Armored Division return to County Down to revisit the places where they were stationed 63 years before.

4 of the GI tank battalion rediscovering old tank-tracks - possibly their own - in Co. Down

writeAdd a new article
contribute your article to the site


Article - Marty Johnston - 2005

At the end of April 2005, just as Northern Ireland was reflecting on Victory in Europe on the 60th anniversary of VE Day, US soldiers of the allied forces were landing once again on these shores.

Emblem of the "Old Ironsides". the Association of the 1st Armored DivisionIn May 1942, the First Armored Division of the US army arrived in County Down and made Castlewellan Castle its headquarters, under the command of Major General Orlando Ward. They had sailed from New York on the Queen Mary on 10th May, and arrived in County Down, via Greenock and Belfast, a short time later.

Over the weeks that followed their tanks, jeeps and half-tracks were scattered all over County Down as they prepared for combat. They were also introducing the people of Northern Ireland to chewing gum, American coffee and Glenn Miller's Big Band sound.



The 'Old Ironsides'  receive a painting of the Mourne Mountains, presented  by RSM Thompson at BallyKinlar Camp
RSM Thompson at Ballykinlar Camp presents the Old Ironsides with a painting of the Mourne Mountains, which they guarded 63 years ago.

A small group of those soldiers made the journey again in 2005, returning to County Down to see the places where they had been billeted 63 years before. Places such as Downpatrick, Killyleagh, Castlewellan, Newcastle, Kilkeel and Dundrum.. In addition, they were welcomed at Belfast's City Hall and spent a day in the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum.

They were also invited to spend a day at Ballykinlar Army Camp, another of their postings. The photograph at the top of this page shows four of them examining an old rusted tank-track found partly buried in long grass, which they suspected might have been one they left behind all those years ago.

Here (right) you can see the RSM (WO1) Thompson (Royal Irish) presenting the 'Old Ironsides' with a specially commissioned painting of the Mourne Mountains.



The 'Old Ironsides' on patrol once again - In the picture: Laurel Anderson (front) and Robert Dowell (behind)
The 'Old Ironsides' on patrol once again, seen here in a WWII Half-Track in Ballynahinch, Co. Down during a special VE 60th celebration.

Their week of visits ended with a spectacular VE celebration in Ballynahinch, where the 'Old Ironsides' once again had the chance to roar through the streets in WWII American military vehicles.

Thousands gathered at the rugby club to watch demonstrations by parachute and motorcycle display teams. Many people came out of the crowd just to shake hands with the GIs.

This was, as you'd expect, an emotional visit for the veterans. Most of them hadn't been back to Northern Ireland since they left in 1942 and memories were exceptionally sharp. Every one of the visiting GIs talked enthusiastically about the beauty of the Northern Ireland countryside and the wonderful welcome they'd had both in 1942 and now again in 2005. "Way back then people were kinda curious about us guys and I guess we were curious about them too."



Our online reporter Bob Crookes spent the week with the veterans and recorded some truly wonderful memories on tape. Click on any of the GI's faces below to find out more and hear them talk about their time here in Northern Ireland in '42.

Robbie Robinson grew up on a Kentucky farm. He had three brothers who were already in the US Army and he decided he might as well be the fourth one. He Hitch-hiked to Fort Knox along with his cousin They were both just 17 years old. Robbie was turned away because he was under-age. He had to wait until he turned 18 before he successfully joined the army. . . . . . CLICK PICTURE TO READ MORE AND HEAR INTERVIEWSLaurel Anderson  was a student of agriculture at the University of Minnesota when he received a letter from President Roosevelt calling him to join the army. The letter said that he would be in service for one year. In fact he remained for four years and says he learnt quickly not to believe anything that he was told in the services· . . . . CLICK PICTURE TO READ MORE AND HEAR INTERVIEWSIn 1939 Maurice Birkhead had nothing. He was living with his brother who could barely afford to keep him. Jobs were impossible to get  and so he signed up to join the US army. At that time, he says, the ordinary soldier had no idea that America was about to be involved in a World War. . . . . CLICK PICTURE TO READ MORE AND HEAR INTERVIEWSWarren Nicely graduated from high school in 1940. His school principal had foretold that the USA would be at war with Germany within two or three years. Warren decided he wanted to be part of it and he took himself to the recruitment offices in Kentucky and enlisted. After his training at Fort Knox, he found himself in the 1st Battalion in the 1st Armoured Division of twenty that the US Army had put together specifically for the WWII effort. . . . . . CLICK PICTURE TO READ MORE AND HEAR INTERVIEWSWhen the war started Robert felt the urge to do something and did what everyone else seemed to be doing.. he joined up. ·Well somebody had to do something·.· He says. After his initial training he took part in the 1941 manoeuvres, the largest the US army had ever pulled off. . . .   CLICK PICTURE TO READ MORE AND HEAR INTERVIEWS

The 81st Reconaissance Battalion left County Down in October 1942, arriving in Crewe on the 22nd. On 9 December, they set sail from Liverpool, on the Empress of Canada, arriving in Oran, Algeria on 23 December.

The Division played a major part in the campaign in Tunisia, which resulted in the surrender of the Germans and Italians on 9 May 1943. The Division then joined the Italian campaign, the 81st landing in Naples on the US Liberty on 24 October, and landing on the Anzio beachhead on 28 January 1944.

A determined German offensive kept the troops pinned down at Anzio, with the help of ‘Anzio Annie’, a German railway gun, which pounded the beachhead from inland. After the breakout and capture of Rome on 4 June, and a brief rest, the Division headed north. After wintering in the North Appenines, the 81st was involved in the final breakout into the Po Valley, which resulted in the execution of Mussolini on 28 April 1945 and the German surrender in Italy on 8 May, almost exactly three years after the Division’s arrival in County Down.


Relevant Weblinks:

GI Brides leave Kilkeel in 1945

WWII Buildings in N. Ireland

The Americans in Caledon Co. Tyrone

See more WWII stories here on YP&M

Old Ironsides homepage:

1st Armored Division "Old Ironsides":



Charles Slayton - July '08
My father , Web Slayton, was in the 1st Armored Division from August 1940 through the German surrender. He passed away in 2006. He talked of being stationed in Ballykinlar and then being involved in Operation Torch in North Africa.
If anyone remembers him or has pictures, please contact me.

Danny Adams - July '08
I'm the nephew of Sam Riley, who was in the 81st Recon and served as the president of the 1st Armored Association in the 1950's. If anyone knew him or has any stories they could tell me, I'd be happy to hear them!

Dustin C. Day - July '08
Very Nice article,

Hello to anyone who reads this, I am the grandson of 2nd Lt. Clark Day of the 81st Rcn. I am very interested and looking for any info about the unit. Any info, stories or pictues anyone could give me would be very much appreciated. Anyone who can help or has inquiries please email me- dcday0 at aol dot com

Thank you!

Michael Popowski III - July '08
My name is Michael Popowski. My father, same name, was XO of the 81st Rcn in North africa and CO in Italy and at Anzio. Before that, he was at Ft Knox and in Northern Ireland. Other than family, he had 3 loves in his life: Norwich University, Northfield, VT, and the 81st Rcn. In May 2008, I toured the beachhead and followed the path of the 81st from Campoleone to Rome. I visited sites where my dad fought, and I was privy to a monograpgh of Jewett Dix covering the 81st at Anzio. I read my dad's article in the 1945 Cavalry Journal entitled, "The 81st Rcn Squadron Fights its Way to Rome." I was given Gen Harmon's operations map, showing the 81st way out in front of the 1st Armored on the drive to Rome. It's clear that the 81st Rcn was first into Rome in the early hours of 6/4/44, Cpt Roy Manley commanding. The trip changed my life. My dad's been dead since 1969. He's buried at Arlington Cemetary. His dear Comrad in Arms, Jewett Dix, was at the funeral. His friend C!
harlie Hoy, who commanded the Battalion in N Africa was already dead by then I believe. As a former 1st Infantry Division officer who served in Vietnam, my hats off to the guys from the 81st Rcn! What valor! What guts! What humility too.

John R. Rusnak - June '08
My father,John Rusnak was in the military police with the 1st Arm'd Div. 75th Hq., 34th Hq.&47Hq. in Ft. Knox, N. Africa, Italy,& Baltimore,Md..I have a picture of his unit stationed in Ireland and the names & pictures of some of his comrades. Anyone interested in these men may contact me.

Emily Loheide - Apr '07
For those who are interested in obtaining information about loved ones who served, might I reccommend contacting your local Veteran's Affairs office, or military base personnel office. Both should either be able to help you directly, or give you the names/numbers of offices who can.

Carl Guy - Apr '07
My father , Leslie Louis Guy Sr. From Greensburg, Louisiana,was in the !st. Armored From Ireland to France but I lost all of his medals, pictures and records along with my house with Hurrican Katrina. If anyone knows how I might get any information such as what Compny he was in or any thing else Please contact me

Robert Dornan - Nov '06
I would very much like to hear about American Servicemen stationed in Comber Co. Down during the 2nd world war My family moved into the nissan huts vacated by these servicemen when I was about 4 years old I guess about 1944/1945 They were eventually taken over by the local council for families and we lived there for about 5 years Not much room for a family of 6 but I have no bad memories of that time No doubt much more crowded for the service.

Jack Nilsen - July '06
Reading these accounts has been fascinating to me since my Uncle served in the 1st armored division. Unfortunately he passed away a number of years ago. I recall him talking briefly about Italy and Anzio, specifically. As a young boy I hung on his every word but sadly they were few. I was wondering if someone would have any information about him. His name was Rudolph Hansen, was a tank commander, And the last picture I've seen he wore master sargent stripes. If anyone has any knowledge of him please email me at
Jack Nilsen

Robert Stacy Justice - June '06
I am trying to find out if my grandfather, Ernest Paul Williams was in your unit. I know he drove a half track for a while and definitely served in the North Africa theater. He was in Anzio, and Sicily. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Mike Saylor - June '06
I'm not sure if anyone will see this page again but my grandfather, James Berlin Sumner, was a member of the 81st Recon battalion and I would love to hear if anyone might remember him.

Wilfred Cromie - May '06
We would like to here more stories like this one, about us troops in Northern Ireland. Keep them coming, Wilf.

Madeline Fusco - October '05
I am trying to trace a Kathleen and Lily Fox or any of their relatives of Grosvenor Road Belfast who knew my mother Rachael (Ruby) Gray who was friendly with an american GI name of Bob Briggs, he was in the military police I believe although not sure. If there is anyone else who knew my mother I should be grateful if they could contact me, she originally lived in Athol Street just of the Grosvenor Road in Belfast.

Mari Nicholson - August '05
Many US soldiers were also posted in Newry, although it's not mentioned above. I was about 10 at the time, and I can remember the excitement of seeing these very tall, handsome, well-dressed young men walking about town. Offering sweets and gum they always attracted a huge crowd. I remember one whose southern accent entranced me. I think it was this that made me a Tennessee Williams fan when I grew up, and even today I can hear the voice of my friend Bobbie Jo when I read Streetcar Named Desire. My first visit to the USA was not to Florida or New York, but to New Orleans and Savannah - his Deep South.

They brought glamour and excitement and opened a window to a new world and a new future.



Use the form below to post comments on this article
Your Comments
Your Name (required)
Your Email (optional)

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy