In 1943, Vera was to befriend the American GIs which were stationed in Ivybridge and her recollections serve to provide a real insight into life at this time in a relatively quiet village. The sight of large numbers of military personnel milling around would have been something local people would have never ever experienced.
The American GIs of the 116th Infantry Regiment came to Ivybridge in May 1943 in the run-up to an invasion of Europe, which commanders had set for the summer of 1944. The American camp in Ivybridge was located at Uphill on Exeter Road, just a stone’s throw away from the Sportsmans Inn.
Amongst the ranks of American servicemen were the soldiers of Company A, 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division. These would later come to be known as the Bedford Boys.
The influx of troops almost doubled the population of Ivybridge and businesses were booming, not least the pubs. There were a total of eight different establishments to choose from, The Sportsmans Inn, The King’s Arms, the London Hotel with its tap room and main bar, the Bridge Inn, The White Horse, the Duke of Cornwall, the Imperial Inn and the Julian Arms on the outskirts.
For many of the young men from Bedford, in rural Virginia, the Sportsmans Inn was one of the places to go when they had a bit of free time, and it provided relaxation after rigorous training exercises. They would often play darts, card games and use the snooker table which was particularly popular.
With so many public houses in Ivybridge it was inevitable that a few of the troops would end up misbehaving. Whenever a disturbance was reported the military police would be quickly on the scene to apprehend the miscreants who would be transported back to camp to sleep it off in what the GIs called the ‘hutch’. This was their term for the solitary confinement facility at Uphill and one can only assume it had a vague resemblance to a pet rabbit’s abode.
In late May 1944, the 116th Infantry regiment left Ivybridge and moved to Blandford in Dorset where they would board the ships that would carry them across the English Channel.
Many of the young soldiers by this time had written back home talking fondly of the landlady of The Sportsmans Inn, Vera Luckham. As a result she kept in touch with a number of families and even received gifts at Christmas.
The peacetime system of recruiting complete companies from specific towns and areas in America would however, sadly lead to some tragic consequences. This was certainly the case with the Bedford Boys, the brave young men who had made so many friends in Ivybridge during their stay. When they stepped over the edge of the British troopship Javelin and into their landing craft in the early morning of D-Day, they each carried a 60-pound combat pack together with the knowledge that as a part of the first wave, their chances of surviving even the first few minutes would be slim.
Within the first few hours of the landings their unit was completely decimated and ceased to exist. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, there were 35 Bedford soldiers who were part of the landings, all of which had been billeted in Ivybridge while they trained for the invasion. From these 35 men, 21 died on D-Day, 19 of them in the first 15 minutes of landing on Omaha Beach at Vierville-sur-Mer. Two more were killed later that day. Only 12 Bedford soldiers returned. Bedford, Virginia, their home of only some 3,200 people, proportionally suffered the nation’s severest D-Day losses and later became the location for the national D-Day memorial which today gets an average of 60,000 visitors each year.
In 2001, Ivybridge erected a memorial stone in honour of the American servicemen who were based in the town. This memorial is located at Harford Road car park and was formally unveiled on 18 November of that year. Reverend Chris Osbourne conducting the ceremony commenting “Many of the men who had been based in Ivybridge were never to go home again. In our hearts they are still emblazoned as gallant young men who will never grow old, but those that did retain a bond of friendship that exists to this very day.”…
The fruition of the long campaign in Ivybridge to commemorate the Allied troops from across the Atlantic brought a particular poignant moment for Vera Luckham. Now aged 93 and still living in Ivybridge she had kept in touch with many of the survivors and their families.
The Inscription on the memorial stone reads:
Dedicated to all the American Servicemen based in Ivybridge 1943-1944 particularly the 1st Battalion 116th Infantry Regiment who made many friends with local residents. Sadly many of these men were to die on, or after, D-Day the 6th June 1944.
Three years later Ivybridge signed a friendship Treaty with the small town of Bedford and on Friday 4 June, 2004, a group of 50 of its residents visited Ivybridge for the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings. The formation of the Ivybridge – Bedford Alliance preserves the special relationship between these two towns.
For Vera, this official visit gave her the chance to meet some of the relatives and friends of the soldiers she once knew. She attended the memorial service and spoke to those who continued to send her presents at Christmas, so a very special occasion.
After the war the Sportsman’s Inn continued to serve the local people of Ivybridge and continues to this day to be a popular attraction in the town.