Friday 26 November 2010

Lisnabreeny - A Cemetery Remembered

The field as it is today
In the Castlereagh hills above Belfast, there is a field. It’s not a very remarkable field with only its red brick gateway marking it in anyway different from the myriad of other fields. Look into it and it appears no different to the field next door but for the small wooden bench over to one side by a prone granite slab.

This field is passed unnoticed by numerous people every day on their way to and from work and by parents leaving their children to the school only a few hundred yards away.

But if you passed this field on Remembrance Sunday however, you might be surprised to see a small gathering there. For this field is an almost forgotten piece of Ulsters war time past. This field was the site of a cemetery for American servicemen who died during World War II.

The field as it was in the 1940s
The cemetery became the resting place of 148 US servicemen before it was decommissioned in 1948. All their remains were either relocated to American War Cemetery in Madingley, Cambridge or repatriated to the United States.        

In 2005 Castlereagh Borough Council placed a memorial at the site to commemorate the former American Military Cemetery where each year, on Remembrance Sunday, members of the Cregagh/Wandsworth Branch of the Royal British Legion lay wreaths before taking part in the local parade and Service of Remembrance.

The inscription on the memorial tells all:

On 26 January 1942 the first American troops arrived at the Dufferin Dock in Belfast as the first phase of Operation MAGNET, the defence of Northern Ireland, As agreed between President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill during a meeting in Washington DC on December 1941. Over the next three years there were seldom less than 120,000 US servicemen in the Province at any one time.

A US Special Army Observer Group had been acting as an American Military mission in London since 1941. This group approached the war office in London on 9 December 1941 to obtain burial grounds for American forces in the United Kingdom. Two plots were initially set aside for emergency burials in Northern Ireland, one in Londonderry and the other in Belfast. The Belfast plot, located within the City Cemetery, and extending to one sixth of an acre was chosen.

The first American servicemen to die in Northern Ireland were 3 members of the US Navy who lost their lives in an accident at the American Naval Base in Londonderry. The first burial in the City Cemetery plot took place on 12 March 1942. From 12 March 1942 until October 1942 a total of 41 American servicemen were interred in the City Cemetery plot. At that stage the plot had reached its capacity and it was decided to ship deceased personnel across to England for interment until an alternative could  be found.

On 2 December 1943 a ten and a half acre plot of land at Rocky Road was officially opened as the Lisnabreeny American Military Cemetery.

It was decided to re-locate all deceased personnel to this new site, and between 23 May 1944 and 1 June 1944 all of the 41 bodies previously interred in the City Cemetery were exhumed and re-interred at Lisnabreeny. By the end of the war a total of 148 American servicemen were buried in Lisnabreeny Military Cemetery, the majority of that number being Army Air Force but including US Army and US Navy personnel too.

The Cemetery was accessed via a red brick entrance with iron gates on the Rocky Road. A white gravel driveway, lined with cherry trees, led to a flagstaff where the Stars and Stripes was hoisted daily. The graves were laid out in rows with 25 to each row, and each grave had a simple white marker, either a Cross or a Star of David, depending on religious denomination, bearing name, rank, unit and date of death. The Cemetery was looked after by 5 US Army personnel with a minimum of 2 on duty at any one time. A Nissan type hut was located on site and provided storage and office space for maintenance equipment and Cemetery records. The Cemetery was maintained to a very high standard with grass regularly mown, trees and shrubs clipped and pruned, and the stone paths borders whitewashed weekly.

Following the end of the war the Cemetery continued to be maintained right up to 1948 when all deceased were exhumed, and either transferred to the permanent American War Cemetery in Cambridge, or repatriated to the United States, at the request of their families. At that point the cemetery was deactivated and all that now remains to indicate that it was once there is the red brick gateway on the Rocky Road.

On 8 May 2005, Castlereagh Borough Council formally recognised the site when the Mayor of Castlereagh, Councillor Joanne Bunting, presided over a Service of Dedication which was attended by US Consul General, Members of Castlereagh Borough Council and invited dignitaries.

So if you happen to be passing the Rocky Road one day, why not take a moment to stop and sit on that bench and recall a time that was.

History is all around us... some good some not... all you have to do is look.  

(You can see photos of the Memorial stone etc on my Facebook site

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