Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Four British Graves.................

For those of you who have never been here, North Carolina offers some of the most beautiful scenery in America. From it's mountains to it's coast, Carolina offers almost everything that anyone could want.

Off our coast, there lies a chain of barrier islands called the Outer Banks. Looking at a map they thrust out into the Atlantic Ocean as if to catch anything sailing up and down the coastline. That is why when hurricane season starts in the Atlantic, we keep a close eye out, just to make sure that we are ready if one comes ashore. Because the gulf stream goes around this area, it is a major shipping rote and sees quite a bit of ship traffic. With it's shifting sand bars and rough currents it was with good reason that the entire area has been known as "The Graveyard of the Atlantic" since the 1700's.

With the banks being separated from the main land by fairly large sounds, the natives of the area lived in a sort of isolation. Talking to the old timers that are still around you can still hear some traces of that isolation in that their accents are more from coastal Elizabethan England rather than coastal North Carolina. Accents that are quickly disappearing because of the homogenization to our language due to the influence of television, radio, and other methods of modern communication. The names of the people of the banks hearken back to seafaring England too. Names such as Aycock Brown, Jack Willis, Arnold Tolson, Amasa Fulcher, Wahab Howard, Harvey Wahab, James Gaskill, Homer Howard and others that sound as if they had been taken from a list of crewmen serving with Drake, Forbisher, or the other ship's captains sailing against the Spanish Armada.

There was a old saying on the banks, that there was two ways of making a living "Fishin' and Coast Guarding" The Coast Guard has had a long and historic record on the Outer Banks beginning with the old Lifesaving Service and continuing with today's modern Coast Guard. Again you can't read a in-depth history of the Coast Guard without reading the name Midgett, another name common on the Outer Banks.

So you had a hard land with a hard people who were used to resting a living from the sea. They had a understanding of the sea and knew that it would kill you if you underestimated it for a second. Then to add to the difficulties of the day to day living, war eventually came to the Outer Banks. During both the First and Second World Wars, German U-Boats, "The Grey Wolves" came to hunt off the shipping lanes. Many days the signs of these great battles would be apparent, heavy oil, wreckage, trash and sometimes bodies washed ashore to mark the beaches and to be discovered by the bankers.

World War II was a particularly bad time for seafarers off the coast of North Carolina. The German Navy knew that the area off the coast of N.C. was a shipping choke point so Admiral Karl Doenitz laid out a plan for a all out assault that he called Operation Paukenschlag or Operation Drumroll or Drumbeat. It started on January 14th 1942. It led to a literal slaughter of ships crew. It was so successful that German sub crews called the first three month of 1942 "The Happy Times" and the "Great American Hunting Season"

The American Navy and it's merchant fleet were not prepared for the war and didn't have the faintest idea how to combat the U-Boats. No convoys, a lack of radio silence, things as simple as using poor quality fuel and allowing the ship's exhaust to be seen, led to ship sinkings. Even more deadly was the fact that large seacoast cities refused to "black out" their lights for fear of losing the tourist trade. This of course, allowed the U-Boat crews to be able to see the silhouettes of target ships against the glow on shore at night.

Out of this chaos the American Navy asked the British Government for assistance in dealing with the menace. The British Navy loaned the U.S. 24 armed antisubmarine trawlers with crews to patrol the coast until the Americans could get up to speed in building it's defenses. Two of these small ships, the H.M.S. St. Zeno and the H.M.S. Bedfordshire were based out of the port of Morehead City. Both these ships were fishing trawlers that had been converted to armed vessels by mounting a single antique deck gun on her forward deck, a few machine guns, depth charge racks and a A.S.D.I.C. system to detect underwater objects. The A.S.D.I.C system was state of the art for 1942 but it did have a Achilles's heel in that it could not detect things on the surface.

On the night of May 11th at around 10:00 P.M. a German U-Boat U-558 started a surface attack on a "silhouette" it's lookouts had spotted. This was the Bedfordshire At 11:40 P.M. the U-558 fired a single torpedo which struck the ship amidships on the port side. The torpedo's explosion was followed almost immediately by a secondary explosion which could have been caused by either the detonation of stored depth charges or the boilers exploding. The Bedfordshire went down almost immediately. There were no survivors.

On May 14th 1942, Coast Guardsman Arnold Tolson and a shipmate were patrolling the beach on Ocracoke Island when he spotted a body in the heavy surf. He recovered the body and headed back to his station. On the way back, he was flagged down by a island native who had spotted another body floating in the surf. Tolson and his shipmate also recovered this body and delivered them to the Ocracoke Coast Guard station. After checking the bodies for I.D. and other documents, the corpses were identified as Sub-Lieutenant Thomas Cunningham, Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, and Ordinary Telegraphist Stanley Craig, Royal Navy. Since the tradition on the Outer Banks (where there were no undertakers) as well as with military policy was for rapid burial, the bodies were enclosed in makeshift coffins and buried in land donated by a local family.

About a week later, the same Coast Guardsman, Arnold Tolson was on sea patrol about 4 to 5 miles northeast of the Ocracoke Inlet when he found two more bodies floating in the ocean. The bodies were in such a decomposed condition that it was necessary to slip a stretcher underneath the bodies to recover them. The bodies were wearing the same types of sweaters that were worn by the Royal Navy and also by the Bedfordshire crew members Cunningham and Craig. There was no other identification found on the bodies and the state of decomposition was such that there was no other way that identification could be made. It was decided that the two unknowns were more than likely off the Bedfordshire and they should be buried with their shipmates on Ocracoke Island.

The story could have ended there, but it didn't. The people living on the Outer Banks have struggled with the sea for all their lives and have and understanding and fellowship with others who go to sea. During the war, large numbers of bankers left the islands for job opportunities and to serve in the military and it touched the locals that men had come so far to fight and die for the safety of seamen from our country. There was a hope that if the men from the Outer banks died in the same way that some kind person in a foreign land would do the same for the bankers. The people of Ocracoke took the little cemetery into their hearts and cared for it as if they were their own family members. This care was supplemented by occasional visits from Royal Navy crew members off of ships visiting the U.S. Naval base in Norfolk as well as men from the U.S. Coast Guard. In 1976 the small cemetery was deeded over to the British Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Care for the graveyard is provided by the U.S. Coast Guard and since this is sovereign British territory a British flag flies over the graves at all times.

The small graveyard is still there today, just as the remains of H.M.S. Bedfordshire still rest on the bottom of the ocean in 120 feet of water, a tomb for the majority of her crew. Every May 11th there is a memorial service with a firing party provided by the Coast Guard on the site of the graves. So these men, who are so far from home, buried in the sandy loam and shaded by the live oaks and yapon of North Carolina are still remembered.

A small brass plated attached to the fence surrounding the graves has the following engraved on it:

If I should die think only this of me
that there's some corner of a foreign
field that is forever England


Old NFO said...

Excellent post, thanks for the education! I'd never heard about the Brits being buried there.

Johnny Virgil said...

Amazing. Thanks.