By Connie Leinbach
The annual British Cemetery Ceremony yesterday was an international event on Ocracoke.
“I’ve never been to a multi-national event,” said retired Coast Guard officer Pete Trebbe, husband of Coast Guard Commander Karrie Krebbe, the master of ceremonies.
He was stationed in Boston before he and his wife relocated to Pine Knoll Shores south of here.
“We didn’t have anything like this (in Boston),” he said. “This is wonderful. Here, it’s the community taking care of foreign soldiers.”
For 73 years, Ocracoke has remembered the four British sailors whose bodies washed ashore after a U-boat on May 11, 1942, torpedoed the HMT Bedforshire, a British trawler pressed into military service to ferry supplies along the United States coast.
Two of the sailors were identified: Sub Lieutenant Thomas Cunningham and Ordinary Telegraphist Second Class Stanley Craig. The people of Ocracoke rallied and donated land on which the four are interred and which is now leased by Great Britain. Two other British sailors from the San Delfino are interred in a second cemetery in Buxton, who were remembered the day before the Ocracoke event.
These are the only WWII British cemeteries in the United States, and the U.S. Coast Guard takes care of them.
Other international visitors on Friday included Alphonsus and Selena Sweeney from Bell Island, Newfoundland.
It was their first trip to Ocracoke after learning that one of the fallen Bedfordshire sailors was Al’s uncle John, who was 23 when he died.
“We knew he was torpedoed, but we didn’t know where,” Al said during the reception in the Ocracoke Community Center. Earlier this year when the couple was in Florida, they decided to search the Internet and learned about the Bedfordshire.
The two were moved by the reading of the roll call of the fallen by Ocracoke senior Katie O’Neal.
“All I wanted to do was sit down and cry,” Selena said. “All those young men….”
The two visited Ocracoke for the week and said they would be back next year again for the ceremony.
“Everyone is so friendly here,” Selena said.
Her observation was echoed by Richard Eagles, who lives in Margate, Fla., but was born in Brixton, England, and who has attended the ceremony for the last few years in honor of his uncle who had been part of the Royal Navy.
“This is amazing,” Eagles said. “We don’t even do this in our own countries.”
He pointed out something new he discovered this year—that one of the fallen Bedforshire men, Leonard P. Bickford had been from Brixton, too.
For Carla Palmer, this was her fourth visit to Ocracoke and her first attendance at this ceremony. Originally from Toronto and now living in Maine, she was particularly touched by the story of the Canadians.
“I thought it was interesting how the Newfoundlanders were considered to be UK citizens on the roster, but Canadians considered them their own,” she said. “Newfoundland didn’t become part of Canada until 1949.”
Courtney Shafer, an elementary gifted resource teacher from Virginia Beach, liked the international aspect of the ceremony.
“It was moving how those killed in the war from other countries are honored here and how the speakers connected it to the present,” she said.
Kema Geroux, also from Virginia Beach, wanted to see the ceremony that she had heard so much about because her husband is writing a book on the many World War II merchant mariners who were from Matthews, VA.
Military officials stressed how the allies banding together turned the tide of the war.
“We would not have such a safe world if not for the British and what they did in World War II,” said Coast Guard Captain Sean Murtagh of the Hatteras Inlet station. “Thank you; rest peacefully; we have the watch.”
Commander David Trudeau, Royal Canadian Naval attache out of Washington, D.C., who attended officially for Canada, attended for the third time.
“I’ve been here two years now and I really feel this is a family gathering,” he said, noting that Friday (May 8) was World War II Victory in Europe Day.
Great Britain was represented by Commodore Richard Allen, the British Naval attache.
“We recognize the reconciliation of the protagonists of World War II,” he said. “We are still standing as allies, shoulder to shoulder against tyranny.”
Among the other speakers were Daniel Couch, president of the Friends of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras which coordinates both remembrances; Samantha Styron, an Ocracoke School senior, who read the story of the Bedfordshire; and Lt. John Mabus, Coast Guard chaplain.
Others participating were the U.S. Coast Guard Pipe Band, the Coast Guard Honor Guard, who gave the ending gun salute; Howard Bennink, who played taps; Ocracoke Boy Scout Troop #290; Ocracoke Girl Scout Cadet Troop #2829, Lucy O’Neal and Abigail Morris.
Janey Jacoby coordinates the Ocracoke event.
Peter Vankevich contributed to this story.