Although the annual ceremonies at the Buxton and Ocracoke British Cemeteries were canceled this year due to the Coronavirus pandemic, several local organizations found distinctive ways to honor the WWII British and Canadian sailors who lost their lives off of the Outer Banks nearly 80 years ago.
Normally in early May, formal ceremonies are solemnly conducted by members of the National Park Service, U.S. Coast Guard, and the Canadian and British Royal Navies to honor the memory and the service of the men buried in the two cemeteries on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands. Officers place wreaths at the graves while local citizens read the names of the deceased, and the sounding of “Last Post” and a 21-gun salute conclude the memorial services each year.
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 the U-203 off of Pea Island. Two of the men are buried at the British Cemetery in Buxton: Fourth Engineer Officer Michael Cairns of the Royal Merchant Navy, and an unknown soldier.
The Ocracoke ceremony pays tribute to the sailors from the HMS Bedfordshire, which was destroyed in May 1942 by German submarine U-558 near the island. The bodies of Sub-Lieutenant Cunningham and Ordinary Telegraphist Second Class Craig are buried at the Ocracoke site, and two additional bodies were also found in the ocean north of Ocracoke shortly after the incident. Although never identified, they were assumed to have come from the Bedfordshire and were interred alongside their shipmates in what would become the Ocracoke British Cemetery.
Though the prestigious and in-person ceremonies were canceled for 2021, the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum premiered a video on May 6 to honor the sailors of the San Delfino. The video features a brief summary of the event’s history, as well as a reading of the names, ranks, and ages of the sailors who lost their lives in the tragedy. Click here to view the video.
In addition, members of the U.S. Coast Guard Station Hatteras Inlet and the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Cape Hatteras Flotilla 16-4 went to the British Cemetery in Buxton on the morning of May 6 to clean the graves of their fallen shipmates, and to pay tribute to the WWII heroes.
While it is not yet confirmed whether the formal ceremonies will return in 2022, both the Ocracoke and Buxton British Cemeteries remain open to the public for those who would like to pay their respects. The Buxton British Cemetery is located on Lighthouse Road in Buxton, just past the lighthouse, while the Ocracoke British Cemetery is located on British Cemetery Road off of N.C. Highway 12 near Silver Lake Harbor.