Strangers from another land: the US Army at Bushy Park
Between 1942 and 1963, the American military, in various guises, occupied a base known as Camp Griffiss, located within the boundaries of Bushy Park, Teddington. While this naturally had a significant role to play in the allied war effort, unintended societal consequence were felt amongst local communities in the Kingston area, with music playing a key role in the cross-pollination of transatlantic culture.
The 60 acre site was chosen by General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe, in part due to its proximity to London: the capital was easily accessible, yet far enough away for Camp Griffiss to avoid its heavy bombing raids. The vast base went from housing the US Eighth Air Force (8AF) to serving as a base for the US Strategic Air Forces in Europe (USSTAF) and Supreme HQ Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), and it was at Bushy Park that SHAEF refined plans for the Battle of Normandy and D-Day. After the war Camp Griffiss played host to those made homeless by the war, with a dozen families occupying barracks on Chestnut Avenue.
The Berlin Airlift saw the United States Air Force (USAF) return to Camp Griffiss in the late 1940s and re-establish ties with the surrounding area. American troops interacted freely with local residents, attending dances in the borough and hosting parties of their own on the base. Marriages and children were to follow - the concept of ‘GI Brides’ being replicated across the country - but on top of personal relationships these social occasions also allowed for an unprecedented exchange of culture, with music a core component. Blues, jazz and rock n roll records, some of which were commercially unavailable in the UK, found their way across the Atlantic for the first time. American GIs gave vinyl records to their sweethearts, while marching bands and esteemed performers such as Glenn Miller playing at the base itself.
The US flag was lowered for the last time on 1 October 1963, with little physical evidence remaining today of the camp’s foundations. But the cultural identity of Kingston and the surrounding area had been significantly altered, with repercussions that are still felt today. Kingston RPM has been digging into the roots of these changes, uncovering artefacts and anecdotes, while speaking to those who it impacted, and others with a wider perspective of US military occupation in wartime and postwar Europe.