Welsh Memories of the American GIs

Posted: December 6, 2013 in Uncategorized
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In late 1942, thousands of American soldiers and sailors began “invading” Great Britain. Perhaps as many as three million had arrived by early 1944, all in preparation for the D-Day invasion of France.

It was a friendly takeover, and most British citizens were grateful to have America’s help in the war. Nevertheless, two groups of British men had mixed feelings about the GIs’ arrival: young British soldiers, who were away fighting the war and feared the loss of their sweethearts to the charming foreign soldiers; and the fathers of those girls, who didn’t trust the intentions of those same charming foreign soldiers.

It was hard to find places to put them all. The GIs were billeted in private homes, in tents on castle grounds and ancient abbey ruins, and—in the case of the 111th—an abandoned “workhouse,” or poorhouse, built in the 1830s. This time-worn place had a grand name: Albro Castle, and it sat on a hill above St. Dogmaels, West Wales. From December 1943 to June 6, 1944, it was home to the 185 men of the 111th Ordnance Company, U.S. Army. (It is still there.)

St. Dogmaels is an attractive Pembrokeshire village located above the Irish Sea, across the Teifi River estuary from the larger town of Cardigan. It traces its beginnings to 1115 when Norman monks built a Benedictine abbey there; the ruins of the abbey stand in the center of the village today.

I have been able to find a few Welsh people who still remember the men of the 111th, 70 years later. They are all in their 80s today and so were children in 1944. Their memories have a common theme:

From Barbara: “As a ten-year-old, I and my school friends would gather in the early evening at the end of a lane from Albro Castle…to see the GIs on their walk into Cardigan and cajole them for chewing gum or a badge, many of who would oblige immediately.”

From Sadie, who knew my mother in Cilgerran: “I can remember the ‘Yanks’ coming, and your mother getting married and leaving for Texas! To us, trading Nesta [my mother] for chocolate and gum was a good deal!”

They all remember the candy and gum and the kindnesses of the men. For children born in the Depression years and then hit by war shortages, such treats were rare.

A woman who grew up in St. Dogmaels wrote to me with these memories of the GIs of the 111th Ordnance Company:

“They sent quite a lot of [Americans] to St. Dogmaels. It caused a lot of excitement for us young ones, as we’d never seen anyone from America before, and we all thought that they were cowboys! They were a grand lot of lads, always polite and cheerful. We helped them with the money, as they didn’t understand our pounds, shillings, and pence.”

She continues, “Mum was never happier than inviting them in for a “cuppa” and we always had some of them popping in. We had a piano, and one of the men was a really good pianist, and he liked to come to play for us, so we had quite a few sing-songs around it. And they always gave us chocolates or chewing gum (YUM).”

She goes on, “All the people in the village got on well with them (especially the girls!). We’d organize concerts and dances, and try to make them feel at home.

“It was a very sad time when they left. It was very unexpected. I woke up early one morning, and I heard quite a lot of noise outside, so I looked out of the window to see a convoy of trucks passing, also motorcycles and jeeps. They seemed never-ending, and the next morning we were told that they’d all left. The village was very quiet and empty afterwards, as we really missed them.” That morning would have been June 7, 1944, as the men convoyed to Southampton, England, to board their LSTs for Normandy.

My cousin in Wales, Viv Thomas, who was about ten or eleven at the time, recalls hitting up the soldiers for cigarettes, which he and his young friends would smoke behind buildings and in the woods around the village of Cilgerran, about four miles from St. Dogmaels. He told me, “There was an American tank corps based at the old Twrch quarry at Mynachlog-ddu [a small village south of Cardigan], and on Thursdays and Fridays they attended dances in Cilgerran’s village hall; they also frequented the three local pubs, the most popular being the Cardiff Arms in Cilgerran.”

Once Viv and his friend found a large cigar, which had been given to his father by one of the GIs based in Mynachlog-ddu in thanks for his “taxi service” to the dances. They ducked behind Cilgerran Castle with it, and after many unsuccessful attempts, finally got it lit. But later they both became so ill that they could not go to school the next day.

He goes on: “One of my favorite stories is about a Captain Stewart, of the tank corps. He used to date a local girl, Eirwen, and his driver used to take him to Cilgerran in a jeep. After parking the vehicle, the driver was sent up to the pub and the captain went over to Eirwen’s home.

“After 30 minutes or so, the couple would go for a walk. Result: jeep unattended for at least 2 hours. Now we knew the coast was clear, so my friend Dilwyn and I used to start up the jeep and take turns driving it about 50 yards back and 50 yards forward. It was great fun for us, but many times since then I’ve often wondered if they ever ran out of gas on their way back to camp. Wicked kids, I’d call us today.”

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Comments
  1. Kay McAnally says:

    I can see it all happening now – I love all the stories and never tire of them. I want to go back to Wales already – and we just came home! I do hope you find many more 111th veterans. Tell Ed to start talking – he’ll find them soon enough!

  2. harlind says:

    ANDREA:

    THANKS FOR the latest chapter in your ongoing WWII saga.

    It brought a big smile. Have printed it out and will pass it on to my Welsh neighbor.

    Best, Harding

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