May 13, 2013

Annual ceremonies honor British seamen
buried in Ocracoke and Buxton


Canadian Naval Attaché Commander David Trudeau was humbled by the annual British Cemetery Memorial Service Friday on Ocracoke.

The service honors the four seamen whose bodies were washed ashore here in 1942 and interred on land that is now property of Great Britain’s War Graves Commission and maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard. A ceremony to honor two British sailors interred in Buxton was held the day before.

Trudeau explained that the Battle of the Atlantic is remembered every first Sunday in May in Canada and that HMT Bedfordshire, which was torpedoed off Cape Lookout on May 11, 1942, was part of a convoy that was crucial to the war effort.

“I’ve been in Washington, D.C., for a year now and I’m in awe of how the American population honors and pays tribute to your military,” he said. “It’s not like that all over the world.  I’m humbled at your paying tribute to these foreign soldiers.”

Trudeau’s remarks were echoed by Commander Ian Atkins, Royal Naval assistant attaché, also from Washington, D.C.

“You were our allies then as you are now continuing our fight against tyranny,” Atkins told the assembly of about 100 people. “We will never forget you.  Our friends died out there (in the sea) and now rest here among friends.”

Early in 1942, the ocean off the Eastern Seaboard was a vital shipping lane for ferrying supplies. German U-boats parked themselves offshore and took aim at and sank nearly 400 largely unarmed and unescorted merchant vessels.

Unprepared for war, the United States accepted the services of the British Royal Navy to patrol against German submarines.   The HMT Bedfordshire was one of the vessels in the Royal Navy Patrol Service assigned to patrol the North Carolina coast.  Staging for the British Royal Navy took place in Canada.  The six years of action off the coast here is called the Battle of the Atlantic.

Without those World War II convoys—bringing food and materiel to the troops all over the globe—the Allies would not have prevailed, both Atkins and Trudeau said.

These patrol groups took more casualties than the regular Navy, added Richard Eagles of South Florida, after the ceremony.  He traveled to Ocracoke and Buxton especially to witness the ceremony in honor of his 90-year-old uncle Jeffery Palmer, who had been part of the Royal Navy Patrol Service, which included the Bedfordshire.  Eagles had heard about the ceremonies during a reunion he attended with his uncle in England.

“I actually sat with three other veterans in their 90s and heard their stories,” Eagles said about the reunion in England of these convoy men, whose combat section was dubbed “Harry Tate’s Navy,” in honor of a British comedian at the time.

“They also were called ‘Churchill’s Pirates,’” Eagles said, as he displayed a lapel badge only awarded to men in the Royal Navy Patrol Service.

Eagles decided to make the trek on behalf of these veterans to the Outer Banks for the annual remembrances.

“It’s important to them that someone be here,” he said.

The British conscripted a number of their country’s commercial fishing trawlers and pressed them into patrol service during the war.

Of the four bodies that washed ashore following the submarine attack, two were identified -- Ordinary Telegraphist Second Class Stanley Craig and Sub-Lieutenant Thomas Cunningham –and are buried in the plot donated by the Williams and Teeter families, along with two unknown sailors.

“I’m always in awe of what took place here and up along the coast,” said Commander James “Billy” Mitchell, head of the U.S. Coast Guard Sector North Carolina Response Department. “Today we remember the acts of those put in harm’s way.”

Atkins noted that this and the one in Buxton are the only World War II British cemeteries in the United States.

“It’s staggering that you keep this up,” said Jackie Menzis, of Brighton, England, who with her husband, Keith, visited the cemetery on their brief trip through Ocracoke Friday morning.

The ceremony takes place yearly under the auspices of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, which organizes a special committee composed of members of the U.S. Coast Guard and community volunteers.

“The first service was held when the men were buried and it has been held every year since,” noted Janey Jacoby, who is the Ocracoke volunteer for the event.

The ceremony began with a U.S. Coast Guard Pipe Band marching to the site along with a Coast Guard contingent and Ocracoke’s Boy Scout Troup 290.

Ocracoke School seniors Casey Tolson and Diana Perez read the history of the event and the roll of the men lost, and Miguel Monter and Jordy Jenkins handed out programs.

Before Kalman Gancsos of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary played taps, the U.S. Coast Guard Honor Guard gave a 21-gun salute.

Daniel Couch, president of the Friends of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, thanked all the volunteers for the event.

Johnnie Baum, of Hatteras, who works for the North Carolina Department of Transportation Ferry Division, recited a poem he wrote about the fallen. 

Commander Karrie Trebbe of the U.S Coast Guard Sector North Carolina Logistics Department was the master of ceremonies.  Lt. Jason Rochester, chaplain with the U.S. Navy, gave the invocation and benediction. 


(Editor's note: For 73 years, near the anniversary of the sinking of an allied ship, two ceremonies have been held to honor the sacrifices of 63 foreign sailors who gave their lives during World War II, while protecting the coast of the United States. In remembrance, representatives of the U.S. Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary, US Navy, Canadian Navy, British Royal Navy and National Park Service, join visitors and residents at the British gravesites on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands. This year the ceremonies will be on Thursday, May 7, in Buxton and on Friday, May 8, in Ocracoke.  Both are at 11 a.m.

The Buxton ceremony honors the service of the men who lost their lives in April 1942, when the British armed tanker San Delfino was sunk by a German  U-boat just off Pea Island. Two of the men are buried at this cemetery, located on the Park Service Road just past the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The men are Fourth Engineer Officer Michael Cairns of the Royal Merchant Navy and an unknown soldier.

The Ocracoke ceremony, at the Ocracoke British Cemetery, pays tribute to the sailors from the HMS Bedfordshire, which was destroyed in May 1942 by a German submarine near the island. The bodies of Sub-Lieutenant Cunningham and Ordinary Telegraphist Second Class Craig are buried at the Ocracoke site. Two bodies also were found in the ocean north of Ocracoke, and although never identified, they were assumed to have come from the Bedfordshire, and were interred alongside their shipmates. 

The ceremonies are organized by the Friends of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, the Ocracoke community, the U.S. Coast Guard, Coast Guard Auxiliary 16-04, the National Park Service, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, students from the Cape Hatteras Secondary School of Coastal Studies and the Ocracoke School as well as the Ocracoke Boy Scout troop.  The ceremonies are free and open to the public.)

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