A village in the north-west of England is marking the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Bamber Bridge – which took place after residents refused to accept segregation in the US military during the Second World War.

The incident occurred in June 1943, after an all-black US army regiment rolled into Bamber Bridge near Preston, Lancashire.

Despite the black GIs being welcomed by local people, simmering tensions between black soldiers and white military police exploded when a dispute outside a pub escalated into a night of violent confrontations, which left one US army private dead.

Derek Rogerson
Author Derek Rogerson wrote The Battle of Bamber Bridge: The True Story (AP)

Residents are now telling the story of what happened that night and how it changed the treatment of black soldiers in the United States.

Ignoring pressure from British and American authorities at the time, pubs welcomed the GIs, local women chatted and danced with them, and English soldiers drank alongside men they saw as allies in the war.

On the night of June 24 1943, after a dispute outside a pub escalated into gunfire, Private William Crossland was killed and dozens of soldiers from the truck regiment faced court martial.

When Pte Crossland’s niece learned about the circumstances of her uncle’s death, she called for a new investigation to uncover how he died.

Many people from Bamber Bridge feel a sense of pride over the support for the black soldiers. Valerie Fell was just two in 1943, but her family ran Ye Olde Hob Inn, the 400-year-old thatched-roof pub where the conflict started.

Ye Old Hob Inn
The focal point of the incident was Ye Olde Hob Inn in Bamber Bridge near Preston, Lancashire (AP)

She said of how the incident is viewed by local people: “I think maybe it’s a sense of pride that there was no bigotry towards (the soldiers).

“They deserved the respect of the uniform that they were wearing.”

Black soldiers accounted for about 10% of American troops stationed in Britain during the war. Serving in segregated units led by white officers, most were relegated to non-combat roles such as driving trucks.

US authorities tried to extend those policies beyond their bases, asking British pubs and restaurants to separate the races.

Bamber Bridge, then home to about 6,800 people, was not the only place to resist. What is different about the Bamber Bridge incident was the desire of local people to preserve their story, according to Alan Rice, co-director of the Institute for Black Atlantic Research at the University of Central Lancashire.

Bullet holes in wall
An original wall with what could be bullet holes is seen by an Air Training Corps building in Bamber Bridge (AP)

He said: “If you’re fighting fascism, which these people were, it’s ludicrous, absolutely ludicrous, that the US army (were) encouraging a form of fascism – segregation.”

Clinton Smith, head of the Black History Group in nearby Preston, wants people to look more closely at what happened. The history “just can’t be allowed to wither on the vine”, he said.

Despite their friendships with the GIs, villagers were not able to head off the violence when black soldiers, frustrated by their treatment and angry about race riots in Detroit, faced off with military police who were armed with batons and sidearms.

On that hot June night, Private Eugene Nunn was sitting at the Hob Inn bar when a white military police officer threatened to arrest him for wearing the wrong uniform. British soldiers and civilians intervened.

Recounting her mother’s story, Ms Fell said: “Everyone was saying: ‘Leave him alone. He just wants a drink. It’s a hot day.’

“People just didn’t understand this viciousness.”

When Pte Nunn left the pub, the police were waiting. Tempers rose, and a bottle was smashed against the windshield of the police Jeep. The situation escalated and it was not until 4am that order was restored.

Military authorities sought severe penalties in the aftermath of the violence, with 37 black soldiers charged with mutiny, riot and unlawful possession of weapons.

Clinton Smith
Clinton Smith, chair of Preston Black History Group, reads a copy of a magazine outlining the Battle of Bamber Bridge as he sits in the Ye Olde Hob Inn, where black GIs were welcomed by locals (AP)

Some 30 received sentences of between three and 15 years in prison, combined with loss of pay and dishonourable discharges.

As the allies prepared for D-Day, many had their sentences shortened so they could return to the war effort.

While the court martial criticised the white officers for poor leadership, there is no record that they or the military police were disciplined.

Ken Werrell, a US air force academy graduate and retired professor of history at Radford University in Virginia, studied the proceedings and reviewed military records for an article published in 1975. He said the black soldiers were badly treated.

But the broader story is that senior generals, focused on improving morale and performance, quickly ordered changes in the treatment of black troops.

Many of the officers commanding black units were replaced and the army deployed more racially mixed police patrols.

Commemorative sign
A sign detailing the Battle of Bamber Bridge outside Ye Olde Hob Inn (AP)

“The Bamber Bridge affair was more than just a minor incident in World War Two,” Prof Werrell wrote.

He said it “was one of a number of incidents” in black communities’ and America’s “continuing crusade for freedom”.

In 1948, US president Harry Truman ordered the end of segregation in the military, though that took years to fully achieve.

Lloyd Austin, a black man and retired four-star army general, is now the US secretary of defence.

But that progress came too late for Pte Crossland, a former railway worker who was 25 when he died.

Court martial evidence said only that he was found gravely wounded, with a bullet near his heart. Officers said they believed he had been caught in the crossfire between two groups of black soldiers.

Nancy Croslan Adkins, the daughter of one of Pte Crossland’s brothers, said she was never told about the circumstances of her uncle’s death.

Air Training Corps building
The Air Training Corps building is the last remaining part of a base where black troops were stationed in the town during the Second World War (AP)

The family later changed the spelling of its last name.

Ms Adkins, of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, wants to know more about what happened.

“Having dealt with direct discrimination myself by integrating the school system in North Carolina, and the racial injustice that my parents faced, I would love an investigation,” she said.

Aaron Snipe, the spokesman for the US embassy in London, said he could not prejudge any military decision, but President Joe Biden’s administration has shown a willingness to “right the wrongs of the past”.

Earlier this month, the US Navy issued a formal apology to the families of 15 black sailors who were dishonourably discharged in 1940 after complaining that they were forced to wait tables.

Mr Snipe, meanwhile, will pay tribute to the people of Bamber Bridge at an event marking the anniversary.

“Part of this story is about their unwillingness to accept segregation orders or regulations that were pushed on them,” he said.

“They pushed back.”