If the residents of Pheasey in Walsall could step back seven decades in time to take a stroll around their estate, they wouldn’t believe their eyes.
What would they see? Smart young soldiers peering from the windows of the estate’s newly-built houses. Armed sentry posts and gate houses guarding access to the streets. The sound of marching boots might fill the air. And outside the Collingwood Centre, which served as a military HQ, stood a flagpole – flying the stars and stripes of the US flag.
Few people who live in this quiet suburb know that during World War Two it was requisitioned by the Government and handed to the American army.
Now a 12-month project, called The Americans Are Here, and backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund, aims to help local people find out how their homes were once occupied by GIs, and their streets were filled with jeeps and army trucks.
“We want the project to raise awareness of Pheasey’s past during the second World War,” said organiser Lee Mitchell, “because it’s something that people simply don’t know about.
“Many of the people who lived here at the time are sadly no longer with us, so we can’t rely on their memories to keep the story alive. Newer residents are gobsmacked to find out what went on here, sometimes in their own homes, when war was raging.”
The project aims to get local people to engage with local history and find out for themselves about how the American Army made Pheasey its home.
“We really want to use Pheasey’s wartime history to create community spirit, by getting local people involved,” said Lee, who is organising the project with colleague Dave Crathorne.
“It’s also about reaching out to socially-isolated people and getting local schoolchildren involved. It’s a great story that’s right here on our doorstep.”
At the outbreak of World War Two in 1939, the new Pheasey Estate was still being built. When America entered the conflict in 1942, US troops started to flood into Britain. In Walsall, the War Office requisitioned unfinished properties on the estate, creating a Replacement Depot there, as a staging post for soldiers arriving to replace those killed or wounded in the fighting. American soldiers would sail into the UK via ports like Liverpool, before trains brought them to what was then Great Barr railway station in Hampstead. The GIs would then march up the Queslett Road to Pheasey.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused some disruption for The Americans Are Here, which originally hoped to hold regularly meetings and talks, as well as practical face-to-face sessions to help people discover their area’s history. Lockdown meant that all that had to be cancelled.
But by drawing on true wartime spirit, the project has carried on.
“We launched our The Americans Are Here Facebook page to allow people to still get involved throughout the lockdown,” Lee explained. “In fact, what everyone has been going through with coronavirus has a lot of parallels with what British people experienced during the war.
“There’s an argument that in some ways it has been worse because at least during World War Two you were allowed out of your house. And the pubs were open!”
Some of today’s local pubs were regular haunts of the American soldiers who lived on the Pheasey estate, and have formed part of the project’s photographic work, which aims to bring local history alive.
“We have pictures of what the area looked like at the time, so one of the things we have been doing is tracking down the locations in those images and taking a new picture from the same perspective. It provides a ‘now and then’ version of these fascinating old pictures and really helps to bring home the fact that this happened here,” Lee said.
“We’re also trying to build links with American families whose relatives served here, and track down the families of local women who went back to the US, as ‘GI brides’, when the Americans left in 1945. There is so much to uncover.”
Beneath the surface of today’s Pheasey Estate, evidence can still be found of the area’s wartime past.
“There are lots of stories of local people decorating their homes and finding graffiti on the walls beneath their wallpaper, left by American troops,” Lee said. “One person found the tread marks from a jeep.
All of this history is just under the surface, waiting to be found”. The idea of The Americans Are Here is to make local people aware of their heritage, and help them discover it for themselves.
“It’s so important that this kind of history isn’t forgotten. It helps people better understand the area they live in, and how it played a part in world events.”
We need you!
Are you a Pheasey resident, school or business?
Would you like to find out more about the area in which you live, work or play?
We are looking for people of all ages to join us in discovering Pheasey’s fascinating past during World War Two, when it was home to American soldiers.
To get involved in The Americans Are Here:
T: Dave 07702 082331 or Lee 07583 076495
Facebook: WW2 Pheasey Estate – The Americans are Here group