WW2 – Pocket Guide for Visiting American GIs

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Arrival of American Troops

The bombing of Pearl Harbour on December 7th 1941 represented a major turning point in World War 2 with the, then neutral, United States declaring its intent to join the war the following day. President Franklin D. Roosevelt described the date of the attack as “a date which will live in infamy” as the attack by the Japanese was on a neutral country without a declaration of war.

In February 1942 the first 6,000 US troops arrived in Belfast in preparation for war. Over the next few years numbers increased substantially. Around 300,000 American soldiers were stationed in or passed through the north during the war years.

“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, 2022

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 Pocket Guide to Northern Ireland

The arriving soldiers were issued with a short booklet outlining the history, people and customs of Northern Ireland and providing guidance on GI behaviour in any dealings with the citizens. This booklet “A Pocket Guide to Northern Ireland By United States. Army Service Forces. Special Service Division, United States. War Department” provides a fascinating insight into American views of the Irish in this period before mass tourism.

The Pocket Guide to Northern Ireland
The Pocket Guide to Northern Ireland

A Pocket Guide to Northern Ireland

The pocket guide outlines the essential information on a number of areas – the politics & government of Ireland, differences in American/ Irish cultural habits & the lives of the citizens along with practical advice on Irish coinage, weights and measures etc

The booklet acknowledges the historic influence of the Irish on American history:

  • Irishmen from North and South, Prot­estant and Catholic, began to emigrate to America in early colonial days and played important roles in American history.
  • The printer of the US Declaration of Independence, John Dunlop, was born in Strabane.
  • Nine generals in the American Revolution were of Irish birth.
  • Four signers of the Declaration of Independence were born in Ireland and four more were of Irish descent.
  • Fourteen Presidents of the United States have carried Irish blood in their veins.

On Politics & Government

The pocket guide opens with a brief history of the island highlighting the depth of feelings between the opposing factions in terms of religion and nationality.

Some of you, Protestants or Catholics, may know at first hand or second hand about the religious and political differences between Northern and Southern Ireland. Perhaps they seem foolish to you.

A Pocket Guide to Northern Ireland, By United States. Army Service Forces. Special Service Division, United States. War Department

US soldiers were reminded that ‘Eire‘ remained neutral in the war and that the border should not be crossed. The need for avoidance of any discussion on religion or politics with the locals was emphasised strongly.

American troops marching to quarters in Ireland February 1942 (Wikimedia Commons)
American troops marching to quarters in Ireland February 1942 (Wikimedia Commons)

Understanding the Country and the People

On the Climate

The arriving troops were warned that they may not like the Irish climate as it is cold, damp with approximately 200 days of rain a year. Indeed “the sun is only an occasional visitor in Ireland“.

Servicemen were advised of long summer days and short winter days due to Irelands northerly location with little darkness in June/ July but only 7 hours of daylight in the winter months. The always present dampness is identified as the cause of cold winds in both summer & winter with locals wearing thick, woollen clothing throughout the year.

The Irish Home (Pocket Guide)
The Irish Home (Pocket Guide)

On the People & Hospitality

Arriving troops were advised that they would receive a warm welcome in the country as the Irish are hospitable by nature and many have links with America by way of past emigration to the US and friends who live there.

Among the Americans were thousands of black soldiers, who were broadly welcomed by the locals, in stark contrast to the segregation and racism they faced at home.

“For African American soldiers, however, it was a window into a world without racial segregation.”

Dr Simon Topping, Associate Professor of United States History, 2022

In terms of hospitality it was explained that the offer of a cup of tea is almost inevitable on calling at any house though an important addendum was highlighted…

You should be warned on one point: if you are invited to the farmer’s dinner table, don’t accept too many help­ings. Food is not plentiful, and because the Irish are hospitable, the bustling housewife may have cooked most of the week’s supply of meat.

A Pocket Guide to Northern Ireland. United States War Department

However the possibility of causing accidental offence in not recognising the people’s pride in their country is highlighted. In particular, no suggestion of US superiority in terms of scenery, climate or lifestyle should be made – indeed any comparison in which Ireland is described as inferior to the US should be avoided even if felt to be correct.

THE people of Ulster, whether of Gaelic, Scottish, or English ancestry, regard themselves as Irishmen. They are proud of their lineage and tremendously fond and proud of either native land… Your role is to listen. You may have seen more exciting scenery, you are undoubtedly used to more bountiful living-but you are on their home grounds.

A Pocket Guide to Northern Ireland. United States War Department
Road Congestion (Pocket Guide)
Road Congestion (Pocket Guide)

Social Life – the Public House

The tavern or public house is described as the social centre of Irish life with temperance advocates rare. The drinking of “beer” (stout, ale and porter) is common. Irish whiskey, though excellent, is too expensive for many. American-style lighter beers are known as lagers (most were actually German lagers).

Other drinks may be offered:

Up in the hills you may be offered an illicit concoction known as “potheen.” This is a moonshine whiskey made out of potato mash. Watch it. It’s dynamite .

A Pocket Guide to Northern Ireland. United States War Department

It was stated that social etiquette within the pubs may surprise visiting American in terms of, both, drinking customs and the Irish love of vociferous arguments .

The Irish don’t go in for the Dutch treat system. If five men enter a pub, each will stand a round, and etiquette demands that all stay until the last of the five rounds has been bought. If you are invited to join such a group, and do so, remember that you will give offense by a refusal to treat and be treated.

A Pocket Guide to Northern Ireland. United States War Department

Drinking is taken seriously, as is the love of debate.

THE Irish love to talk. Conversation is the most highly perfected form of entertainment. Although class distinc­tions are important in Northern Ireland… there is a democracy of self-expression. No Irish­man is too poor or too humble to offer an opinion, and every Irishman expects to be listened to

A Pocket Guide to Northern Ireland. United States War Department

Pub arguments are common and indeed enjoyed with loud differences of opinion, insults and frequent name calling considered part of the entertainment.

The Irish call each other names, accuse each other of the most bizarre irregularities, indulge in wild exagger­ation and virulent personal abuse. Listening, you may ex­pect a rousing fist fight at any moment.

A Pocket Guide to Northern Ireland. United States War Department

Servicemen were advised to stay on the side lines during such debates.

Social Life – Other Pastimes

The absence of coffee, soda fountains, hot dog stands, sandwiches and hamburger joints is lamented though some Irish foods such as oat cakes and potato bread are recommended with Irish scones the “best in the world.”

Entertainment is available in a variety of forms – football, dog racing, horse racing, field sports, golf and are fishing are common. The loughs provide an opportunity for boating and bathing. The growth of motion-picture houses had introduced American films to the Irish public. Irish jigs and reels and dancing “are strenuous and sweaty fun.”

Troops were warned that “everything is closed on Sunday” in line with the strong religious beliefs of the population and that care must be taken not to offend citizens through casual profanity (that may be considered normal in the US). An abundance of churches reflects the strength of religion with 15 or 16 churches likely in any town of 10,000 citizens. Troops were encouraged to attend church as an excellent way of establishing trust and friendlier relations with locals.

On Girls

In terms of romantic relationships it was noted that “Irish girls are friendly” and will stop to chat frequently. This does not mean that they are falling for you.

Any young lady you’re interested in must ask her family’s per­mission before she can go out with you. In the old days when a girl was seen in the company of a young man more than two or three times, it was as much as announcing an engagement. Or nearly as much. The couple was said to be “clicking,” and the unwritten code demanded that the rest of the girls turn their eyes elsewhere.

A Pocket Guide to Northern Ireland. United States War Department

Regardless of the advice, Irish girls had little difficulty in falling for the American troops who brought hope for the outcome of the war, hope for an exotic romance/ marriage and a seeming abundance of money, chocolates, cigarettes and nylons etc. (In the absence of nylons during the war, young ladies often used tea to dye their legs and drew a seam up the back of their legs with an eyebrow pencil).

Brownlow House WW2 Exhibits - newspaper, cigarettes, nylons, chocolate
Brownlow House WW2 Exhibits 2

Local lads/ soldiers were scornful of the allure of the ‘Yanks’ with a common description of the American GIs at the time as “overpaid, oversexed and over here.” The original source of the quote is unknown though it was popularised by English comedian Tommy Tinder. Variations of the phrase were common including an American riposte that the British were “Underpaid, Undersexed, and Under Eisenhower“).

Regardless of the romantic rivalries, short-term dalliances and troop movements to Europe, many lasting relationships were recorded:

Over 1,800 Irish women married American servicemen. Many of the War brides came to the United States after the war, and many children were born from relationships formed during the war.

US National WW2 Museum

On Language

George Bernard Shaw (or Oscar Wilde by differing accounts) is said to have remarked that Britain and the US are “two nations separated by a common language” and the US pocket guide confirms that not only are there different words for common objects but also warns that accents and speech differ substantially by Irish social classes and location (“there is a brogue for every county in Ireland“). It was noted that the speech of the common people is markedly different to that of the upper-classes, the English, Scottish, Welsh and Americans.

The Irish drive “cars” not “automobiles”, visit “chemists” instead of “drug stores”, travel on “trams” not “street cars” and sell clothing in a “drapers shop.”

Donegall Road Tram (Pocket Guide)
Donegall Road Tram (Pocket Guide)

Servicemen were advised not to react expressions “that may strike you as funny” and to simply accept that some expressions will not be understandable. This lack of common understanding is a two-way situation reflecting separate cultures with the Irish similarly nonplussed by American idioms. Some Irish examples were given:

When he says his wife is a “homely kind of person” he is paying her a compliment; he means not that she is ugly but that she is cozy, kind, and unassuming.

A Pocket Guide to Northern Ireland. United States War Department

(They will) refer to an unmarried man or woman well over 40 as a “boy” or a “girl.” Only married people who have children are called men and women; bachelors and spin­sters remain juvenile until the end of their days.

A Pocket Guide to Northern Ireland. United States War Department
Typical Housing (Pocket Guide)
Typical Housing (Pocket Guide)

Economic Considerations

With American wages in general, and American soldiers remuneration in particular, considered the highest in the world it was emphasised that visiting troops should be careful not to draw attention to the lesser circumstances of the population around them.

The people of Ulster are, in general, serious- minded and hard-working. They are independent in their beliefs and stubborn in their opinions. The heavy infiltration of Scotch blood may have something to do with the fact that they are exceedingly thrifty. But they are thrifty also because Ireland is not a rich country and a living is difficult to come by.

A Pocket Guide to Northern Ireland. United States War Department

The scale of land holdings by the average farmers was described as “absurdly small” with “90,000 farms in Ulster with tiny fields and small, whitewashed, thatched-roof cottages. A 5-acre place is one of respectable size to an Ulsterman.”

“most of the Irish farmers manage to make their livings on plots of land which Americans, used to tractors and far horizons, would think hardly larger than ample vegetable gardens”.

A Pocket Guide to Northern Ireland. United States War Department

Belfast, it ws noted, still bears the scars of German bombings with the result that “there aren’t many things to buy.” A consequence was a shortage of chocolate bars, talcum powder, chewing gum and ice cream.

Eglinton Street Belfast May 1941 (Imperial war Museum)
Eglinton Street Belfast May 1941 (Imperial war Museum)

Units of Measurement


The guide notes that the money/ coinage in use in Ulster differs considerably from America and that care should be taken never to refer to it as “funny money.”

The pound was described as the basic unit of currency (worth slightly more than $4). There were 20 shillings in a pound and 12 pence making up a shilling. Other coins in frequent use were the farthing (a quarter penny), a half-penny, a “thrup penny bit” (3 pence), six pence (or tanner), the shilling (bob), the florin (2 shillings), the half-crown (2 shillings and 6 pence), the crown (5 shillings), and the rarely seen sovereign (valued at £1) and half-sovereign.

The variety of paper notes were listed with a special mention for the ‘guinea’ as some shop items were priced in guineas (meaning 1 pound and 1 shilling). It was highlighted that no actual coin or note of this value was in circulation.

Weights & Measures

Measures of length (inches, feet, yards and miles) and weight (pounds) are similar between the two countries. Similarly pints, quarts & gallons (though the English gallon contains 20% more liquid than an American gallon).

Subjective estimates of measurement are to be treated with caution e.g. if asking an Irishman for directions…

He is likely to be vague and optimistic in giving you directions: “Just up the road a bit” may mean a long way, and a “five- minute walk” a jaunt of several miles

A Pocket Guide to Northern Ireland. United States War Department
World War II pillbox, Portrush © Copyright Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-SA 2.0) .
World War II pillbox, Portrush © Copyright Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-SA 2.0) .

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