When President Biden stood at the grave of his ancestor at the tip of the Cooley Peninsula, he was little more than a kilometre away from an area associated with another US president. On May 17th, 1944, Gen Dwight D Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces, and later US president, flew into the airfield at Greencastle. It was just across the water at the entrance to Carlingford Lough.
He was there to inspect and to encourage the US airmen and troops that were preparing to take part in the invasion of Normandy on June 7th that year. It was part of his tour of US forces in Northern Ireland.
The United States Army Air Force had occupied the airfield there since 1943. Greencastle became an unflagging centre of aircrew training. From dawn to dusk medium and heavy bombers roared into the air, veered north to practice air-to-air and air-to-ground gunnery as well as bombing runs off the near coastline of Co Down.
The airfield housed an important airplane repair and maintenance facility. It also acted as combat crew replacement centre.
After the US entered the war at the end of 1941, it became clear that an invasion of the Nazi-occupied Europe would be planned. The RAF sought to build new military airfields principally to accommodate the expected influx of many US warplanes into the UK.
The suitability of the ground around Greencastle became apparent.
It was flat agricultural land by the shore of the relatively sheltered Lough. It was cradled from the prevailing winds by the Mountains of Mourne to the west and north and by the Cooley mountains to the south and southwest.
The only building of any height was the impressive grey-stone castle built there by the Norman baron Hugh de Lacy in the 13th century. Most of its towers and battlements had survived attacks and fighting over the following centuries. De Lacy had also built the equally imposing castle across the water at Carlingford. These were intended to guard and control the narrow entrance to the Lough.
Work on the airfield began in January 1942 and the sound of cement mixers, bulldozers and machinery could be heard along the shores of Carlingford Lough. The land was owned by small family farmers. Some compensation was paid to them, but a few were reluctant to move out of their homesteads and many buildings were erected around the farmhouses.
The airfield was completed in three months of hectic construction. There were three runways in a triangular layout, with the man runway 1.5 miles long, running parallel to the shore. A control tower dominated the scene.
Four large aircraft hangars were erected as well as aircraft maintenance buildings and an ammunition and bomb store. Administrative offices occupied many buildings as did living quarters.
By all accounts, the affable Americans made a good impression on the locals. They mixed easily, made friends and became popular with all members of the community. They went to dances, and taught the locals how to jive. Their presence has been remembered down the years by an annual jive festival at the nearby town of Kilkeel.
As with all the US forces, the airmen and troops at Greencastle were well provided with victuals.
Supplies, however, did not include Guinness and Irish whiskey. Some men had a taste for these drinks. Undercover arrangements were made with one or two pubs in Carlingford. On dark nights, when the tide was right, a small boat would be rowed out of the harbour towards the little jetty at Greencastle and crates unloaded. It was said that this was a very profitable enterprise.
As D-Day approached, the training activity at Greencastle intensified. There were dozens of aircraft there and many air-crews. Another important visitor was Gen George Patton.
After the Normandy landings and the Allied advances, air-fields in France were captured and put to use. The importance of Greencastle dwindled.
It was closed in 1945.
A well-organised caravan park now occupies some of the land where the runways once lay.
However, the control tower, somewhat dilapidated, still stands as a reminder of the time when war-planes zoomed into the air for strenuous training excises over the sea. It’s much different today where the voices of children at play is the most heard sound.