Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

John Coulter rewinds 70 years to the day GIs landed

Dark days: US troops march from Belfast docks to LMS railway
Dark days: US troops march from Belfast docks to LMS railway

Old seadog John Coulter, now a sprightly 85, was just a boy of 14 in wartime August 1942 when he stood on the quay at Pollock Dock B in Belfast to watch the first American GIs disembarking from the good ship Gripsholm.

His reason for being there was that John had just started his first job as an apprentice with Thomas Donald & Son, a firm of mooring contractors long since gone from the city harbour.

"I watched 2,500 doughboys marching up Dufferin Road and then along Whitla Street to the LMS Railway Station to catch a train to Londonderry," recalls John. "It was memorable occasion for me and the late deputy harbour master John Gregg who was with me in the crowd of onlookers."

Coulter's reason for recalling the arrival of the Yanks and those dark days of war is that he is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the time he tried to join the Merchant Navy under age and was actually one of the crew on board the tug boat Empire Meadow which flew the Red Ensign of the Admiralty in Belfast Harbour in May 1943.

But it was discovered that he was too young for service and discharged from the ship as she sailed away to the battle.

"I did manage to join up just as the war was ending and served in the Persian Gulf and around the world for a spell until I came home to work with my father who was a mooring contractor at the Belfast docks," recalls John.

Today John, married to Sarah, whom he met in the Gala Ballroom, for 57 years -- they have two sons, eight grandchildren and one grandchild -- is one of the few sea veterans still around who actually saw those first Yank soldiers arriving to train for D-Day down in Londonderry.

"The passenger ship Gripsholm on which they sailed into Pollock Dock B was Norwegian and had been commandeered for the war effort by the British," explains John, who in spite of his great age is still a working tug boat man with his Lagan Marine Services which guides great cargo ships safely into the docks on a daily basis.

And he is also chairman of the Belfast branch of the Merchant Navy Association and right now is planning their annual church service in September.

"Apart from my time in the Navy I've spent a lifetime at Belfast Harbour, a place that is close to my heart," says John, who was also a Harbour Policeman in his day.

THEY WANT TO AXE RACHEL - GO FIGURE!

I'M about to launch a campaign to stop Channel 4 taking Countdown off the screen. Sure, life wouldn't be the same for me without Rachel Riley giving out the letters and adding up the figures and showing off that trim figure of her own, plus a new dress every day.

If afternoon viewers are dropping away don't blame Rachel (I can't understand why she isn't in that list of the world's most beautiful women). The real turn-off is presenter Nick Hewer who is out of his depth in a show like Countdown. We need Patrick Kielty in there with Rachel to give the series a boost.

RETIRING BECKS NO MATCH FOR BEST

LIFE can be a wee bit cruel -- even when you shoot yourself into sporting history by scoring the winning goal in a Cup Final. Ben Watson did just that a couple of weeks ago at Wembley when he headed in a splendid only goal for Wigan to knock Man City out of the FA Cup Final. Ever since then have the critics been hailing him as the good footballer he most certainly is? No, all most of them can say about the lad is that he is the image of Prince Harry. Hardly a mention of his performances for Wigan. Yes indeed, life can be nasty.

But as David Beckham goes into a rich retirement let me make it clear that alongside Stanley Matthews and George Best he just doesn't rate and I note too that one ex-player stated he wouldn't include David in his list of top 1,000 Premiership stars.

TEA DANCES FOR THE YOUNG AT HEART

IF showband legend Dave Glover were alive today he would thoroughly approve of the tea dances for older types who are still young at heart which are taking place at the Waterfront Hall on Saturday, June 8 with the first from noon until 2.00pm and the second taking place between 3.00pm-5.00pm.

I remember the late Dave playing for his tea at Belfast Castle in the latter stages of his career and sometimes getting on to the floor himself for a quickstep or a slow waltz with one of the patrons.

The old-fashioned dance afternoon will be part of the Imagine Arts Festival for Older People which is going on at the Waterfront on Saturday, June 8 and and Sunday, June 9.

It will be packed with arts events, performances and workshops for the over 50s, apparently.

Meanwhile, visitors to the Waterfront and The Ulster Hall can enjoy a wide range of art and photographic exhibitions which are taking place, featuring works by local and international artists including home- bred Sean Campbell.

HI-DE-HI SHANE'S BELFAST LINKS

PAUL Shane, star of television sitcom Hi-de-Hi, who has died at 72, began his career as a comedian at the old, lamented Empire Theatre in Belfast in the early 60s.

I remember Paul, real name Paul Stephens, on the same bill one week as Ken Dodd.

The ex-miner, who played Ted Bovis in the holiday camp series, was introduced to the Empire in Victoria Square by singer Ruth Madoc, his co-star in Hi-de-Hi and a regular at the theatre and Opera House. He sang big ballads before being discovered by writer Jimmy Perry for Hi-de-Hi, which ran from 1980 for eight years.

Yorkshireman Shane loved Belfast and its Empire, which is now a shopping complex after closing in 1965. He was invited to appear with Frank Carson in the final show, but couldn't because of a previous booking in Rotherham.

Before Hi-de-Hi, Paul had bit parts in Coronation Street and Emmerdale. More recently he was Mr Bumble at the London Palladium in a revival of Oliver! In films he played a retired bank robber in The Grey Mile last year.

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