World War 2 – 1944
Around 300,000 American soldiers were stationed in or passed through Northern Ireland during WW2. By 1944 there was a huge increase in maritime and aerial activity because of the planned Allied invasion of Europe.
“On the 80th anniversary of this historic event, many people would be surprised to learn that the first place in Europe that American soldiers set foot during the Second World War was Belfast”Dr Simon Topping, Associate Professor of United States History
Dr Topping notes that, by January 1944, there were around 100,000 Americans based in Northern Ireland – equivalent to 10% of the total population.
The Cavehill Crash
On 1st June 1944, en route to assist the Allies, a US army aircraft crashed into the Cave Hill in north Belfast.
The Boeing B-17, known as the ‘flying fortress’ left Newfoundland, stopping briefly in Iceland, before heading to Ireland. However a thick fog over Belfast forced the plane to divert to Nutt’s Corner Air Force Base, 10 miles from the city.
With visibility extremely poor the plane, flying at too low an altitude, crashed into the slopes of the Cave Hill near Belfast. All 10 crew members were killed.
Aftermath of the Crash
The sound of the crash and the subsequent explosions from the 4-engine plane caused panic in the area. One young lad, Gordon Burnison, climbed the hill…
“That morning I forgot about school and ran up to Cave Hill to see what happened. The plane was in among the trees.Gordon Burnison quote reported by Simon Hunter, News Letter, Fri June 2nd 2006
American troops arrived and sealed off the location. However, locals were to find many items scattered over a wide area due to the severity of the impact.
It is said that in the following days policemen toured nearby schools threatening ‘dire consequences’ for any boy or girl who found an item from the crash, and did not hand it in. A group of children subsequently relinquished their discovery of machine-gun-belt ammunition.
Several artefacts, ranging from machine parts to personal belongings, such as pens and cigarette cases, have been gathered together for a small poignant exhibition in Belfast Castle, simply named The Crash on the Hill.
The White Boulder
To prevent exactly this type of disaster, the War Office in 1940 employed a local postman, William Caulfield, to paint a large boulder on the hill white as a navigational aid/ warning of the hilltop for pilots. William and his wife Ellen, lived in a cottage on the slopes of the hill. William was paid £5. In this case the unfortunate B-17 pilot was unable to see the boulder due to either the heavy fog or the route of his flight.
In May 2016 the stone was repainted in memory of the Cave Hill’s wartime history. The Northern Ireland Environment Agency has listed the rock as an historic landmark.
Lisnabreeny American Cemetery
The 10 crew members were buried in Lisnabreeny American Cemetery, Rocky Road Belfast.
Originally American personnel who died in the north of Ireland had a designated sixth of an acre plot in Belfast City Cemetery. However, by October 1942 this had reached capacity. The War office granted the request from US authorities for a separate graveyard.
The ten-and-a-half-acre site in the Castlereagh Hills was officially opened in December 1943. A white gravel path, lined with cherry trees led the way from the iron gates into the cemetery. Graves were laid out in rows of 25. Each headstone inscribed with name, rank and date of death. The American flag was hoisted daily to a bugle fanfare. In total 148 servicemen were interred in this graveyard, 8 of whom were unidentified.
In 1948, the United States government repatriated all the men buried at Lisnabreeny and the cemetery was decommissioned.
On 8th May 2005, a plaque recording the significance of the site was placed on the red-brick pillars of Lisnabreeny by the Mayor of Castlereagh.
In 1993, a 31-year-old Carnmoney man, Alfred Montgomery, while out walking found a wedding ring near the crash site. The battered ring was inscribed with the names Lawrence and Ruth.
Intrigued, he discovered it had belonged to Lawrence Dundon, a 31 year old Staff Sergeant and radio-operator on the ill-fated plane. Dundon was from Louisville, Kentucky. Alfie set about researching the Dundon family and was finally able to return the ring to Lawrence’s widow Ruth Gillespie in Kentucky.
“It was pre-internet days and I spent maybe two and a half years writing over 100 letters and eventually traced the ring”Alfred Montgomery
This remarkable story is retold in the movie “Closing the Ring” directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Shirley MacLaine.
The full story of the B-17 Crash and the ring is told in the book “42-97862 – The Story of a B-17 Flying Fortress crash and the loss of her crew on Belfast’s Cave Hill during the Second World War” written by Alfred Montgomery and William Lindsay. The book is currently out-of-print although an updated version with additional information is due for release in Spring 2023.
The Cavehill Memorial
On 1st June, the 62nd anniversary of the tragic event, a memorial was erected to commemorate the 10 American airmen who lost their lives. This is situated on the slopes of the Cave Hill, within Belfast Zoo.
“We are here to recognise the sacrifices that were made so many years ago. Of blood, hard work and tears that kept our nations free.Wallace Brown, Belfast Lord Mayor, 1St June 2006
The names of the dead are inscribed on a black marble tablet beside a column of Portland stone.
“At this place, at this memorial, we acknowledge a time-honoured debt to the ten men of aircraft Number 42-97862, and an entire generation of Americans who died and fought fearlessly to preserve the liberty we hold so dear”Wallace Brown, Belfast Lord Mayor, 1St June 2006
In 2019, relatives of some of those who perished that dreadful day, made the long journey back to the site of the disaster on the Cavehill slopes.
Volunteers from the Cavehill Conservation Campaign, including Alfred Montgomery, made the climb more accessible, clearing the trail and stringing ropes between the trees to aid the visitors ascent.
For both the families and the volunteers it was an intensely moving, enlightening and emotional experience.
The Crew Remembered
Lester B Brooks Pilot
Jeremiah C Murphy Co-Pilot
Joseph V Nobilione Navigator
Leighton B McKenzie Bombardier
Wilbur D Brewer Engineer Gunner
Howard A Hibbler Aerial Gunner
Lawrence E Dundon Radio Operator
Lawrence R McGrane Aerial Gunner
Robert L Graves Jnr Armorer Gunner
Edward E McGill Aerial Gunner
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