Rob Rickey is from Louisiana, but has lived in Crediton for 30 years. In 2019 he was amazed to get a call from the Moretonhampstead History Society, who had discovered that his father was among 1500 American soldiers who had stayed in the town and at nearby Mardon Down, as they prepared for the D-Day landings. Here he reports on what he learnt about his father’s war time experiences in Devon and beyond.
My father, Horace B. Rickey, Sr., was a successful builder in New Orleans when he enlisted in the American Army Corps of Engineers in November 1942. He left a wife and his business behind; his first son, Horace B. Rickey, Jr. was 20 and he also enlisted. One of my earliest memories is of my father saying “I was never as healthy as when I was camped on Dartmoor with the wind blowing through the tent.” He never said where that was; he died when I was 13 and I never had asked him questions about his war experience.
I was pleased to receive a phone call from Bill Hardiman of the Moretonhampstead History Society who had been researching the American camp on Mardon Down, found my father’s name and tracked me down in Crediton. I was amazed to find that I was living almost in sight of Mardon Down.
He was commanding officer of a company of combat engineers. The officers were white and the enlisted men were all African Americans (who were almost totally excluded from combat roles). In spite of my father’s proclaimed love of Dartmoor, the officers were billeted in Moretonhampstead, or possibly at Bovey Castle.
The whole regiment, the 392 Engineer General Service Regiment, sailed from New York on the Queen Mary to Grenoch in Scotland. They were transferred to Yeovil and eventually to Mardon Down in April 1944. The battalion headquarters were in Torquay.
They spent the next weeks before D-Day training the men in building foxholes (a few of which are still visible), gun emplacements and roadways called cordways, palingway or treadways. Along with two large abutments either side of the road through the middle of the Down, these are now clearly visible, thanks to the work of the Moretonhampstead History Society working with the Mardon Commoners. The roadways had cordwood laid across the earth base to provide an alternative to tarmac or gravel.
Moretonians seemed to get on well with their new visitors. There was racial tension among the white and black GIs, and following a violent incident in town they were required to go to town on specified and different days. The GIs provided a jazz band for dances, tinned fruits and Jeep rides, while the locals introduced them to fish and chips and rough cider.
The regiment moved to the Marshalling Camp near Falmouth on June 24th, sailed to Southampton on the 29th and landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy on June 30th. They set about collecting engineering supplies and building barracks and on railway repair, which was my father’s focus.
General Patton was moving quickly behind the German retreat, and ordered that the heavily bombed rail yard at Fougères in Brittany be opened within 48 hours. This was achieved and the unit received the Meritorious Service Unit Plaque for their efforts.
My father’s unit liberated Les Clayes-sous-bois near Versailles, and he was made an honorary citizen. My wife and I visited some years ago and we were welcomed by local officials and taken to see one of the sites of a rail bridge that my father rebuilt.
After the war, my father’s first wife died and he later married my mother – I came along on the Queen’s coronation day – another link to the U.K.
In May 2019, just weeks before the 75th anniversary of D-Day, I visited Mardon Down with my son Ali and his family – three generations of Rickeys viewing the bluebells that my father must have seen.
You can read more here about the Moretonhampstead History Society’s research into the American’s impact on their town during the Second World War.