Snipers were shooting at my father. This wasn’t World War II, it was Belfast, Ireland, 1969. I was doing my military duty in Germany and took leave to ride my BSA motorcycle over to Ireland to be with him. My brother, Tom, had been killed in action in Vietnam the previous year and my mother thought it would be good therapy to get away for a while.
I was on Oranmore Street, Belfast, where my aunt lived. It was just after dark and while standing in her entry way, I witnessed a fellow getting hit by a sniper’s shot. The poor fellow was just trying to get across the street to get home. I ran out and grabbed him by the collar and dragged him to the doorway, out of harms way. He was screaming in agony, and begging me to tell his wife that he truly loved her and regretted that things ended this way.
There was no visible blood, which puzzled me. I ripped open his shirt and found a huge welt on his chest. It was then I realized that the bullet had ricocheted from a building and hit him. He had actually somersaulted through the air from the impact, and I suspect the crash-landing on his back on the cobblestone street may have hurt even more! Although, in pain, he was going to live.
It was then I spotted my father at the end of the street, walking with my Irish grandfather. I yelled for my dad to take cover and unbelievably, he retorted, “They didn’t get me in World War II, they won’t get me now.” As if by some miracle, he and my grandfather, walked boldly down the street and arrived safely. I can’t explain it.
Later that night, I volunteered to go act as an unarmed guard at the new schoolhouse they had built next to the Clonard Monastery. (Right: The school is no longer at the end of this street.) The Catholic community there had just built it, and they were concerned that someone might try to burn it down. I had ridden to Belfast, Ireland with a fellow American GI, George, and the two of us volunteered. We were joined by a young Irish lad of 13, and a man who I would estimate was about 70. We took up our positions at the four-story schoolhouse and stood guard.
Almost immediately, we came under small-arms fire. Petrol bombs (Molotov Cocktails) flew at us constantly. We plugged up all the drains for sinks in the building and let the water run onto the floors to hopefully keep the fires from spreading, all the while, dodging bullets. We tried to stay on the higher floors so that the bullets would come up from the ground level at such an angle that they would miss us. This worked well, but we had to run downstairs often to put out fires. This went on all night. After sunrise, we made several attempts to evacuate the building, it wasn’t worth dying for. However, each time I would go down to check the exit door, the only one we could use, I would poke my shirt out, on the end of stick, and somebody would fire at it. Being able to take a hint, I would run back up the stairs.
Eventually, around two in the afternoon, I heard somebody down on the first floor. I peeked down through the stairwell and could see a man working his way up the stairs; he had a rifle. I grabbed a two-by-four with a nail in the end that I had prepared earlier and waited. I had a good position to take him out when he reached the top of the stairs. I waited. I could hear my heart beating and I don’t think I breathed at all.
As he neared the top he called out softly, “Are you okay? I’ve come to help.” I didn’t know whether to trust him, or take his head off, but finally decided that he was there to rescue us. He was a young man, a total stranger to me, with a WW I Springfield rifle and ten rounds of ammunition. I took a chance and greeted him. He told us he was there to get us out. The IRA (Irish Republican Army) had sent him. He fired several shots, the first fire that had been returned since being there. Why nobody came and killed us during the night, I’ll never understand.
He told us to go down and try to escape. I went to the door that previously was a shooting range and when I stuck the shirt out, nobody fired at it. One at a time, we ran from the doorway, up the street and dove through a small opening in a wall behind the Monastery. I was the second to last one out, and as I flew through the opening, not having a clue where it went, or what I would land on, I landed in front of a priest with a silver tray and he asked me, “Lad, would you care for some tea?”
The family that lived next to the schoolhouse had to be evacuated, so George and I went back to help them move their things out. It was evident that their house wasn’t going to survive. Everyone was grabbing whatever they could and hauling it up the street. We had met with the family the previous day and they were terrified. As George and I were going up one side of the street with some things, a shot rang out behind us and the family’s 15-year-old son, just across the street from us, Gerald McAuley. fell dead, carrying a mattress from his home. I’ve never understood why he was killed and not George or I?
I’ve had many close calls in Belfast. I was caught there at the worst possible time: July, 1969. There we many other hair-raising experiences, but these were the most vivid.
Today, Jane and I revisited where many of these events occurred. Many of the streets are gone, as is the schoolhouse. Looking back at it all, I can’t really understand it. Civil wars are crazy situations. All wars are terrible, but somehow, I think people from very similar backgrounds killing each other, are the worst. I was pretty choked up emotionally walking around there today, it seemed so surreal. It brought back so many memories, some good ones, but so many that I wish I could forget.
Somehow, I didn’t expect this backpack trip across Europe would come to this.
The streets may be gone, but the memories are not.