by “The Digger” – September 2008
The Digger recalls a wartime romance at Langford Lodge
The Protestant Hall in Glenavy was just one of many focal points during the second world war where people both young and old would meet for social gatherings and soirees in the district. Myrtle Armstrong and her sister Patricia were no exception. Their father, Thomas, was the local railway stationmaster, since the arrival of the family in the village in 1940.
Myrtle recalls that one evening they attended a dance in the hall. The music for the dances were provided by a local pianist and fiddler, and usually went onto into “the small hours.”
The American soldiers had arrived in the area, and that evening two American personnel visited the hall. They were passing by on their bicycles and had heard the music and decided to investigate further. To Myrtle’s horror once inside the hall, the American soldiers made their way over to her and her sister. Myrtle can still recall what she said to her sister at that point “Oh no, you know those two yankies that came in, they’re coming our way.” The stern warnings from their parents had some effect on the two sisters and they refused the gentlemen’s offer of walking them home after the dance. They were well aware that the music they would have to face at home for disobedience would not be on the same scale as the music they had been dancing to!
On return from school the next day, Myrtle recalls the wonderful cooking smells that were emanating from her mother’s kitchen at the Stationmaster’s house. She had been met by her mother, enveloped in her apron and covered with flour at their front door. “What have you been up to?” her mother asked. Her sister, Patricia, had tried to intervene and instructed Myrtle to inform their mother they hadn’t been doing anything.
The story slowly began to unfold, and Myrtle soon realised that earlier that day a young American male had driven up to the house whilst the girls were at school. He had delivered a sack of flour, sugar and 5lbs of hard Christmas candy to the Armstrong household, leaving instructions that it was a present for her daughters. This was wartime and never before during this period had the girls ever seen any of these luxuries in such quantities. Susan Armstrong certainly wasn’t complaining about these newly acquired luxuries, but she was uncertain as to her daughters’ role in the events prior to the acquisition. Myrtle and her sister had unwittingly been in the company of the man in charge of the quartermasters stores on the American base.
That first encounter by Myrtle with the Americans would not be the last. In the latter part of 1942 Myrtle heard from a friend that the Americans were hiring locals for office work at Langford Lodge and they were offering attractive remuneration packages. They had obtained the name of an officer on the base located at site 4 and they decided to set out on their bicycles. Myrtle recalls the heavy rain that had fallen and she can remember vividly the ankle deep mud in the vicinity of the construction site at the lodge. Myrtle and her friend were interviewed by “a charming fatherly Colonel” and instantly hired. Within minutes of the hiring they were introduced to their new bosses. Myrtle recalls the first time she set eyes upon her new boss. “Shortly a tall skinny GI came in, picked up my application and glanced down at me and muttered Myrtle … e’gads …” His comments somewhat displeased Myrtle and she recalls how the blood rushed to her cheek, she felt her temper rise and jumped to her feet. The GI stepped back a little, grinned shook hands with Myrtle and introduced himself. “I’m Richard Neff, better known as Dick, we will be working together, follow me.” Myrtle was somewhat unimpressed at this time. She could never have guessed at that moment that she would spend the next sixty years of her life with this man.
Myrtle commenced work at the base, riding on her bicycle every day from Glenavy to Langford Lodge. Eventually the base provided them with a command car and driver and taxied Myrtle and other local girls to and from work. This lifestyle was in stark contrast to what Myrtle and her friends had known outside the base. Myrtle attended her first Christmas Ball held in Langford Lodge in 1942. She describes it as a lavish affair for a “little Irish girl who had known only war time fare.” GI’s dressed in white jackets and a punch bowl nestled in the well of the beautiful staircase are some of the treasured memories of that evening.
The following summer, Richard asked Myrtle to have dinner with him. They had worked amicably together as boss and secretary to this point. Security was paramount during the war, and the military personnel were not permitted to divulge any information as to their whereabouts or their duties, to the point that Richard’s mother did not even know his posting location. Richard asked Myrtle if she could write to his parents on his behalf. They knew that Myrtle’s correspondence would not be as heavily censored as Richard’s. This would be the first time that Richard’s parents would know he was in Ireland.
In late 1944, Richard asked Myrtle to marry him and an acceptance was readily forthcoming. The long drawn out procedures for obtaining permission to wed, the investigations and interviews by British and American security agencies and the concerns of her mother only made Myrtle more determined to go through with a wedding.
On the 15th October 1942, it was reported that Ernest Brown, Minister of Health was reminded in the House of Commons by Lieutenant Colonel Wickham that all registers of marriages and womens’ organisations were aware that no American Military personnel on duty in a foreign country may marry without written permission, and even if that permission were given, marriage allowance would not be payable, nor would the wife become a U.S. citizen or be allowed to accompany her husband on return to the United States. The Lieutenant Colonel stated that he wanted “to ensure our girls know exactly what their position is before embarking on a course that will affect the whole of their future.”
Richard had been best man on the 2nd March 1944 at the wedding of his work colleague and friend Fred Tron to a Finaghy girl called Daphne Holdsworth. Fred would return the favour for Richard and he himself was bestman at Richard and Myrtle’s wedding in Seymour Street Methodist Church on the 25th January 1945. Myrtle recalls the terrible weather conditions at that time. The church pipes had frozen and she had to wear a wool sweater underneath her wedding gown. Local press reported that artic conditions were prevailing in all parts of the province, with snow drifts of up to seven feet in many country districts. Times were hard during the war. The material for the wedding gown had been obtained from coupon books that in turn had been purchased from the winnings of a shilling slot machine at Langford Lodge. Myrtle’s mother had made the wedding cake and the cook at the base iced it. The veil and orange blossom for the wedding were provided by a good friend of Myrtle’s mother. The reception was held in the Grosvenor Rooms, in Belfast.
Life for Myrtle had changed forever. She was about to venture on a journey to the land of “milk and honey”.