by Connie Leinbach
Canadian Naval Attaché Commander David Trudeau was humbled by the annual British Cemetery Memorial Service May 10 on Ocracoke. The ceremony 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 those 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 the convoy in which the HMT Bedforshire was torpedoed off Cape Lookout on May 11, 1942, 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, British Royal Naval Assistant Attaché, also in 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 ferrying supplies to the British Navy. German U-boats parked themselves off shore and took aim 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 British had conscripted a number of their country’s commercial fishing trawlers and pressed them into patrol service during the war. The HMT Bedfordshire was one of these vessels assigned to patrol the North Carolina coast.
Staging for the British Royal Navy took place in Canada, and the six years of action off the coast here is called the Battle of the Atlantic. Without those WWII 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 ceremonies in honor of his 90-year-old uncle Jeffery Palmer, who had been part of the patrol service.
These convoy men called themselves “Harry Tate’s Navy,” Eagles said, in honor of a British comedian at the time. “They also were called ‘Churchill’s Pirates,’“ he continued, as he displayed a lapel badge only awarded to men in the Royal Navy Patrol Service. “It’s important to them that someone be here,” he said about his visit.
Of the four bodies washed ashore following the submarine attack, two are known: Ordinary Telegraphist Second Class Stanley Craig and Sub-Lieutenant Thomas Cunningham are two of the known buried in the plot donated by the Williams and Teeter families. The other two are unknown.
“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 WWII British cemeteries in the United States. The ceremony takes place under the auspices of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, who 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.
Among those participating were the U.S. Coast Guard Pipe Band, Ocracoke’s Boy Scout Troup #290; Ocracoke School students Casey Tolson, Diana Perez, Miguel Monter and Jordy Jenkins; Kalmon Gancsos of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary; the U.S. Coast Guard Honor Guard ; Daniel Couch, president of the Friends of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum; and Johnnie Baum, of Hatteras, who recited an original poem about the fallen.