Roamer: Rediscovered flag with unique military and local history ready to hoist again

Enniskillen's rediscovered US 8th Infantry division flag
Enniskillen's rediscovered US 8th Infantry division flag

Today in 1945, in the German city of Nuremberg, the victors of WWII began the first international war crimes trial.

The four judges who made up the International Military Tribunal took their seats at 10am to hear the charges being read out.

The heinous tally of offences included waging a war of aggression, violating the customs of warfare, committing crimes against humanity, and the then newly-defined crime of genocide.

Amongst the allied forces who overcame Hitler’s military might and liberated his heinous concentration camps was the US 8th Infantry Division - “one of the few American units that was stationed in Northern Ireland during WWII” Lurgan

war researcher Roger Edmondson explained in an intriguing letter to Roamer.

“Units of that Division were stationed in County Fermanagh from December 1943 to June 1944” Roger added.

The Americans departed Belfast for France and landed in Normandy on July 4, 1944 for the second phase of the landings.

Almost 20 years later “the only Irish-born member of the Division made a trip to Enniskillen from Frankfurt in Germany where they were stationed” Roger’s account continued.

Dublin-born Private John Burns came to Fermanagh on March 18, 1964 to present Enniskillen people with the colourful flag of the US 8th Infantry Division, and to bring a special message of thanks for their friendship and co-operation from his Commander, Major General Stanley R. Larsen.

Mr Edmondson’s research shows that since their training in Fermanagh Private Burns’ Division saw 226 days of combat during WWII, with 2,532 killed in action, 10,057 wounded, and 288 who died of their wounds.

They also helped liberate Wöbbelin Concentration Camp near the German city of Ludwigslust.

On May 2, 1945, accompanied by the 82nd Airborne Division, the US 8th Infantry-men arrived at Wöbbelin and found over 1,000 inmates dead in the camp, many buried in shallow graves.

Five days later a US Army Chaplain delivered a eulogy at a burial service for some 200 of the dead which was attended by the citizens of Ludwigslust.

“Within four miles of your comfortable homes,” said the Padre “4,000 men were forced to live like animals and were simply allowed to starve to death. These 200 who lie before us in these graves were found piled four and five feet high in one building and lying with the sick and dying in other buildings.”

Two decades later in Fermanagh US Private John Burns delivered an infinitely different message to the inhabitants of Northern Ireland’s island town, and presented the 8th Infantry Division’s flag and a Certificate of Appreciation “for hospitality and co-operation extended by residents and officials that will never be forgotten.”

Private Burns “was accompanied by the American Consul in Belfast, Mr Byron Manfull, and his wife Mrs Manfull,” Roger Edmondson’s account continued, noting the words of Enniskillen’s Mayor Alderman W.F. Bryson who accepted the gifts in the Town Hall saying “this is an historic occasion.”

Alderman Bryson recalled when the town was a “home from home” for the American GIs.

“He referred to the setting up of the Allied Hospitality Committee in Enniskillen,” Roger discovered in an old newspaper report.

The Committee “was chaired by the late John E Collum” the report continued.

Mr Collum, H.M. Lieutenant for Fermanagh, noted at the time that “two of the Division’s Generals had been of Irish extraction.”

Alderman Bryson reminded the Town Hall audience that one of the two, Brigadier General Nelson W. Walker, had died leading his platoon just five days after landing in France.

“He was one of the kindest gentlemen I ever came across,” said Alderman Bryson, recalling the Brigadier General’s enthusiasm to make the Hospitality Committee’s work a success by allowing his band to play at the weekly dances in

the Town Hall.

“The Division had one of the best bands in America,” said the Mayor, “and they divided it into two dance bands.”

Brigadier General Walker also laid on military transport to bring servicemen and servicewomen from nearby bases to the dances, which were collectively attended by “between 40,000 and 50,000 local people.”

According to Roger’s old newspaper report “the Mayor told Private John Burns that Major General Larsen, on whose behalf the Private was presenting the flag, had been known to him as a very junior Lieutenant when the Division was

stationed in Fermanagh.”

Private Burns said that the flag had been used in their Divisional Headquarters in Bad Kreuznach in Germany from 1957 to 1963 as the Major General’s personal flag “and it was sincerely hoped that it might find a place of honour in

Enniskillen.”

“I know you will accept these tokens with the same feeling of mutual understanding and friendship as was felt by our Commanding General when he asked me to deliver them to you,” said Private Burns.

The flag was then hoisted on the Town Hall flagpole, and has only recently been re-discovered “safe and sound” by Roger Edmondson, with the enormous help of local Museum staff and researchers in the Library and Council offices.

“It would be fantastic if the flag and its history were to see the light of day again,” said Roger, a former soldier whose father served during WWII with the US 28th Infantry Regiment.