Change Here For America - 16th June 1945


Change Here For America: Text version

16th June 1945


I arrived in Foynes on a Sunday evening, and although the peace of the Sabbath had settled on all the other towns I had passed through, Foynes was a scene of the greatest activity. Buses, lorries, motors and bicycles were coming and going in such numbers that one could not help wondering if they ever had heard of petrol rationing and rubber shortage by the Shannon shore. The first thing a stranger notices on entering Foynes from the east is the row of huge oil tanks that line one side of the street. The Glin side of the village (if one may still speak of it as a village) contains all the new buildings and offices that have sprung up almost overnight. First there is the wireless station tower which flies the Irish Tri-Colour, then come the Shannon Airport offices, American Consulate, Shannon Restaurant offices, canteens and staff quarters belonging to the three operating Companies, Customs and Excise offices, etc. On the side of the hill overlooking the town the huge new Government hostel of gilt stonework is taking shape. Direction signs to all the important buildings are in Irish and English and the Irish lettering which says 'Aerport na Sionna,' 'Prionlann na Sionna,' 'Bainisteoir an Aerphuirt' rl., is the nicest I've yet seen.


I wheeled right on to the pier. A brilliant sun was shining, and 'the waves were dancing fast and bright'. Here at last was the Shannon Airport, the first free airport in the world.

'Tis, it is the Shannon stream,

brightly glancing, brightly glancing;

See! Oh, see! The ruddy beams upon its waters dancing.'

Almost at once my eyes rested on an unusual sight –- two young Gardai, armed with revolvers marching up and down - Foynes now has an armed police force. Three flying boats were resting on the water. Shortly after my arrival a fourth arrived. I couldn't see the actual landing, as it came down just out of sight behind Foynes Island, but taxied around later to the mooring buoy. Thanks to a friend, I was able to visit one of these great ships of the sky. Looking at it from the pier was rather misleading, and it was not until our boat pulled in under the huge wing that we got an idea of its size. How thrilling it was to board her and imagine for a moment that we were about to take off for America! One of the first places we met was the lounge and as I reclined on one of the luxurious couches I felt sure that no trans-ocean traveler ever thinks of the distance between himself and Mother Earth –or, rather, Father Neptune. A corridor ran back the full length of the 'plane and on each side were compartments like railway carriages, only not so large, with soft downy cushions, and windows looking out over the water. Everywhere were couches, cushions, comfort and ease. I don't know why so much emphasis was laid on the upholstering, seeing that there are no rocky roads to shake the passengers who speed along the long savannahs of the blue. Once I noticed a door labelled 'Emergency Exit Only.' It was the part of the plane that least appealed to me.

Upstairs was the control-room, where the navigator, engineer and wireless operator work. The engineer's board was a nightmare. It contained the controls for all four engines and was a maze of dials and switches. The wireless operator's was almost as bad. The navigator's instruments were far fewer, but I'm sure his task was none the lighter. The two pilots sit out in the nose of the 'plane, behind a board with duplicate controls. They set their instruments to the required course, and as the flight of the 'plane is automatically controlled, they just sit at their ease, observing the hands on the dials, making adjustments when necessary.

Upstairs, too, is space to take four tons of luggage. Finally, we arrived out on the wings –- and what wings; from tip to top they measured some 150 feet. A strong breeze was blowing. It certainly was no place for one suffering from vertigo, and those who were not Charles Blondins and who had ambitions to see more of life sat down, and observed from that more secure position. Viewing that great flying boat, with its huge expanse of wing and four mighty engines, one could not help saying – 'Here, indeed, is the climax to the dreams and efforts of Daedalus, da Vinci, the Wrights and Bleriot.' It was with considerable reluctance I dragged myself away and stepped into the boat that was to bring us back to the pier. How wonderful it would be to stowaway in a flying boat bound for America, but from what I could see the builders have not yet made sufficient provision for such adventures!


Two 'planes were ready to take off. The luggage was brought along in a van and on a very noisy Lister truck, and transferred to the launch. There were all sort of cases, portmanteaus and portfolios to be seen, sealed and strapped and locked, mail-bags – I noticed one labeled Helsinki, and what took my fancy, large clumsy brown paper parcels, so badly tied that you'd refuse to take them across the counter from the local shopkeeper. The crews came, fine looking men all of them in their blue uniforms. As they left the pier their captain saluted smartly. The passengers arrived and stepped along the gangway to the launch. Among them were officers in foreign uniforms, complete with diamonds, stars and decorations. Two of them wore peak caps with red bands similar to those worn by our military police. Some of them were young, a few were tough old veterans of the type that pine away between wars.

In a little while one of the flying boats flashed a green light and immediately one of the Shannon launches sped towards her. After some minutes conversation the launch started off again, travelling down stream between Foynes Island and the pier. The propellers of the plane began to revolve, and slowly she set out in the wake of the launch, moving gracefully as a swan before the wind. The sunlight glinted on her silvery wings and flashed from her invisibly whirling propellers. Then at a signal from the launch the four great engines roared as full power was turned on, and she skimmed along the waves half hidden by a veil of spray and foam. Slowly, ever so slowly, she rose like a great bird from the surface of the water, continuing to climb higher and higher until she had attained sufficient altitude. I watched her grow smaller and smaller until she melted into nothingness in the flaming west. A few moments later the second plane followed her.


In a few minutes they were flying out over the vast expanse of the Shannon estuary in sight of towering Mount Brandon, the mountain named after a saint who was also a great voyager, and who, if tradition be correct, reached America long before Columbus sailed through the Gates of Hercules, ignoring their warning of 'Ne plus Ultra' – Nothing Further'- and ventured into the shoreless seas that held the New World. St Brendan's Isle was marked in all ancient maps, and in all probability it was the tale of the voyages and discoveries of the Irish navigator saint that prompted Columbus to board the Santa Maria in 1492 and sail into the uncharted and unknown ocean.

When I left Foynes that evening the flying boats were far over the Atlantic. Already nearly a quarter of the journey to America had been covered and the roar of powerful engines was breaking the silence of seas and skies that had seen wind-buffeted sailing ships struggle along for six weeks on the same journey, and coffin ships flounder and sink with their pitiful human cargos.

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