Sunday, June 12, 2011

British Cemetery Memorial Service

Judy and I attended the British Cemetery Memorial Service that is held only once a year on Ocracoke. It was Friday, May 13, 2011, and we walked from The Anchorage Inn to the cemetery. The ceremony started at 11:00 A.M.

The reason for this event is a memorial service honoring the British seamen buried in a piece of land deeded by the U S government to Britain on the island of Ocracoke in the Outer Banks. It's a story of heroism and gratitude that is little known outside of the tiny town.

The story begins in May of 1942, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. United States has been pulled into World War II. We're fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, and Europe is being pummeled by German Luftwaffe. But the shores of the continental United States are far from safe. In fact, from January to May, 1942, German U-boats shadowed our coastlines and sunk our merchant ships. And the proof was in the debris which washed up nightly on the shores of the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

The German strategy was to batter the British, making it difficult for them to produce manufactured goods, and to destroy our shipping lanes, making it impossible for US manufacturing to supply our allies overseas with oil, iron, lumber, food stuffs and more.

The United States was not well-prepared to defend against the German attack, especially given the 2,500- odd miles of coastline from Maine to New Orleans. As a result, attacking our merchant ships began to look like shooting fish in a barrel. "In the first months of the war we were losing more than a ship a day" says Joseph Schwarzer, Executive Director of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum on Hatteras Island, "that's when the coast of Hatteras became known as the graveyard of the Atlantic and Torpedo Junction." Merchant ships went down in staggering numbers. From January to June, 1942, almost 400 ships were lost. So intense was the pounding taken by our merchant fleet that it was not uncommon to find bodies and remains of wrecks washed up on the beaches in the morning. "Residents would be awakened by a flash of light and the sound of distant explosions. They could actually see the ships on fire out on the water. In the morning they'd find debris washed up on shore," says Schwarzer.

American military response was slow. So, protection, initially, came not from our own armed forces but from our British allies with the loan of deep-sea trawlers, refitted with minesweeping equipment, a device designed to detect submerged objects, like submarines, and depth-charges to be able to attack the German U-boats.

For the crews of the ships HMS Bedfordshire, and the British tanker San Delfino, and unnamed others, the ocean, and the tiny hamlets of Ocracoke and Buxton, on the Outer Banks, North Carolina would be their final resting place.

The HMT Bedfordshire started life as a commercial fishing vessel, crewed by men used to the dangerous waters of the North Sea. When England entered the war the Bedfordshire, among others, became part of the British Royal Navy. The trawler became the HMS Bedfordshire and joined a convoy of ships that made its way across the Atlantic to patrol the coastline of the mid-Atlantic states.

In early May the Bedfordshire's mission was to escort a small band of merchant ships to safe anchorage in Hatteras. Events, as they often do in wartime, grow murky after that. What is known is that on the morning of May 14, 1942 the bodies of two crewmen washed up on the shores of Ocracoke Island. They were identified as being from the Bedfordshire by a local, Aycock Brown, who had actually met one of the sailors by chance weeks earlier. Papers found on the body confirmed the identity as that of a crewman from the Bedfordshire.

Shortly thereafter, more bodies were found. Some of the men were identified as being from the Bedfordshire and were ultimately buried in a quiet corner of the cemetery in Ocracoke village.

Although no official group had responsibility for the cemetery the cemetery was initially cared for by the local citizens of Ocracoke. Many had loved ones serving in the armed forces and felt kinship and gratitude to the sailors buried there.

Eventually, a lease for the tiny 2,290-square-foot plot was given to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for as long as the land remained a cemetery, and the plot officially became a British cemetery.

Today the United States Coast Guard station at Ocracoke maintains the property. A British flag flies at all times over the graves of those British sailors.

The United States Coast Guard Pipe Band started and ended the ceremony.

Several folks presented and the officer below is Commander William Lee of the 5th Coast Guard District did an outstanding job.

Two students from Ocracoke School, Madeleine Payne and Joseph Chestnut, presented the history and read the Roll of Honor.

An important part of the ceremony was the placing of the wreaths.

There were representatives from Canada and the United Kingdom. Ian Atkins, CBE Royal Naval Assistant Attache, presented remarks from the United Kingdom.

A 21 gun salute was conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard Honor Guard.

We are so happy that we decided to attend this special occasion. It was quite a moving experience.

Tomorrow - Leaving Ocracoke


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