Unexpected visitors during World War II

Shortly after dawn on Saturday, September 16 1944, Michael Conneely, a bachelor of 55 years was asleep in his cottage at Ailleabreach, Ballyconneely, when loud banging on his door woke him. He shouted ‘who’s there?’ The storm of the previous two days had abated but he couldn’t make out what the voice said. Grabbing a pitchfork, he slowly opened to door. Outside were two men, wet to the skin, in deep distress. Michael put the pitchfork to the throat of the first man: ‘Who are you?

“We’re Americans. United States Navy. We need your help.”*

The men were invited inside. As Michael raked over the ashes and added more turf, chief gunner Edward Vigeant, and pilot Lieut James Trudeau told him there had been a plane crash. Three of his men were barely conscious on a near-by beach. There was one body. Four others were lost at sea.

There were only two telephones in the area. One on Dunhill, a look-out post, which was part of the Coast Watching Service, and the other at the Ballyconneely Post Office. Michael ran to Dunhill where he left Martin O’Malley phoning the Clifden gardai and the Army barracks in Galway. On his way back he alerted his neighbours, and after a quick search, they found the three survivors. They half dragged and half carried Gerald Flecker, Frank Cicero, and Wilbur Lyle to Michael’s cottage.

Three days earlier Capt. Jim Trudeau took off from Norfolk, Virginia, on a flight to the UK, with a crew of nine, on a heavily armed PB4Y-1 bomber. En route they refuelled at Goose Bay, Canada, and in Iceland, but approaching the British Islands, their plane, the Damnyankee, hit a storm. Its wings iced up, and came down into a raging sea, in darkness, some miles west of Ballyconneely. It was a ‘Miracle-on-the Hudson’ style landing, as the plane, despite the waves, skimmed along the surface, and remained floating long enough for some of the crew to scramble into a life-raft. But the waves were high and it was immensely difficult for all the crew to swim to the raft. Four men ( Vernon Peterson, JG Fleucher, Phillip Mills and Carl Snavely ), were lost at sea. For 33 hours the others were thrown around in the life-raft, being violently sea-sick, capsizing three times, bailing out water with their shoes. One man, Henry Beckwith died from exhaustion and exposure. Eventually, having made a sail from their clothes, they mercifully came to a stop on a rocky inlet at Ailleabreach.

The event was a sensation in the district. Neighbours and villagers ran to Michael Conneely’s cottage. Whiskey was produced but the survivors were too sick to take any. The excited onlookers swigged it down from the bottle. The men recuperated in Clifden hospital, and made warm friends with the nurses and local doctor Willie Casey. When the crew had recovered they were taken to England via the North of Ireland.

On September 11 1994, three days before the 50th anniversary of the ditching of the Damnyankee, Jim Trudeau returned to Clifden. He was accompanied by his wife Lyn, and Eddie Vigeant’s widow Dorothy, and a number of family members including her granddaughter Jennifer. They unveiled a bronze plaque commemorating the men who drowned, those who survived, and the people who treated them ‘with care and compassion’.

Not impressed

Perhaps the best known reminder in ‘neutral’ Ireland and Galway that a war was raging in Europe, was the unexpected arrival of American army generals in Athenry on January 15 1943. Shortly before mid-day, a giant B-17 Flying Fortress, known as Stinky, flew over the town clearly in distress. It was looking for a place to land. That wasn’t easy, as most large fields were ‘spiked’. In case of invasion, trees and steel girders were stuck into open ground to stop planes landing. However, this Flying Fortress was just about out of fuel, and had no choice but to come down. It had left Gibraltar at 2am for the south of England earlier that day, but had missed an important turning point over the Bay of Biscay which would have brought it safely to its destination. Furthermore it failed to pick up RAF navigational signals and was soon seriously off course. The most senior officer on board, Lt General Jacob Loucks Devers, was not impressed by the pilot Captain Thomas Hulings. He warned him to keep well out into the Atlantic to avoid scouting German Messerschmits off the Brest peninsula. However, pilot Hulings proved to be brilliant when he spotted a narrow strip of land by the Galway-Dublin railway line with only one wall in the way, and went for it. Earth, stones, grass and metal flew through the air as Stinky ploughed through the field, eventually coming to a rest. Students from the Agric ulture College, and some young members of the Local Defence Force, rifles at the ready, rushed excitedly to the plane. Amazingly no one was hurt. Lt General Devers jumped down from the aircraft. He was immediately surrounded by the LDF, one young man pointing his rifle at him. Devers famously replied:“ Son, point that thing away. It might go off and hurt someone.”

One of the best

Again the event was a local sensation**. Practically the whole town came out to see the plane. The Dublin train stopped so its passengers could have a good look, and the generals and crew were treated to a hearty lunch at the near-by Railway Hotel hosted by Major James Timony, OC , Renmore Barracks. Everyone got along famously. There was a lot of back-slapping and laughter, and I learned only this week that descendants of both American and Irish families still keep in touch.

The Americans were safely returned to the UK via Northern Ireland, and everyone was happy except poor Herr Edouard Hempel, the German consul in Dublin. He was furious. He came to Athenry to see for himself the crashed Fortress. He was satisfied that the repatriation of the Americans to Britain was a clear breach of Ireland’s ‘neutrality’. He reminded the de Valera government that under the 1907 Hague Convention, which governed neutrality during World War II, Ireland could not support the belligerents in a conflict, and was to deny them use of its territory.

After a while, Dublin replied to the effect that yes, the Flying Fortress was a weapon of war, but in this instance, it was converted to fly passengers, and was not on a belligerent mission.

I doubt if Hempel was happy with that explanation; but he had allowed a very serious opponent to escape internment here. The American army in World War II was fortunate to produce a series of excellent generals. General Devers was one of the best. Four months after his visit to Athenry he was appointed overall commander of US army forces in Europe. He trained and organised his men for D-day, and following the successful invasion of France he was appointed combat commander of the 6th Army Group. He distinguished himself by successfully leading American and French forces in Alsace, and the Colmer pocket; he crossed the Rhine, and had the satisfaction of accepting the surrender of German forces in western Austria on May 6 1945.

Glasses were raised in Athenry when news of the surrender to Devers was heard on the radio.

NOTES:

*Damnyankee - A WWII Story of Tragedy and Survival off the West of Ireland, by Thomas L Walsh, printed in the USA 2009.

**Beside General Devers, the other senior army brass included Maj General Edward H Brooks, Brig General Gladeon M Barnes, Brig General Williston B Palmer, Col William T Sexton, and Major Earle L Hormel. The story of the arrival of Stinky in Athenry is very well told in Eagles Over Ireland by Paul Browne, published 2003.

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