Activities for your visit

Ocracoke honors fallen British WWII sailors

Military officials and special guests conduct the remembrance 74th British Cemetery Memorial Service on Friday. Photo: C. Leinbach

Military officials and special guests conduct the remembrance 74th British Cemetery Memorial Service on Friday. Photo: C. Leinbach

By Connie Leinbach

Jim and Carroll Gray were young boys when they attended the burial in Buxton of a sailor from the torpedoed San Delfino in April 1942 during World War II.

They were the only civilian witnesses of the interment that day, said Jim, who is retired from both the U.S. Coast Guard and as head engineer for NASA at Wollops Island, Va.

The two brothers are now faithful attendees of both of the British Cemetery ceremonies, and attended Ocracoke’s ceremony Friday.

Jim Gray of Buxton with Captain Patricia hill, commanding officer of the U.S. Cost Guard Sector NC, Hatteras.

Jim Gray of Buxton with Captain Patricia hill, commanding officer of the U.S. Cost Guard Sector N.C., Hatteras. Photo: C. Leinbach

“We lived two miles away and heard about (the burial),” said Jim, who was 10 in 1942.

He and Carroll, 9 at the time, shirtless and shoeless in the spring weather, stood off to the side and watched as members of the Coast Guard buried Fourth Engineer Officer Michael Cairns of the Royal Merchant Navy. The other sailor interred in Buxton is unknown.

“When Jim and I were at the burial, our father was missing in action,” Carroll added.

Their father, Cyrus Rufman Gray, who served in the Coast Guard during the war, was helping to land troops at Guadalcanal at that time. Though missing for a while, he was later found alive, Carroll said.

Prior to their moving to Buxton, the family had lived on Ocracoke while their father was stationed at Ocracoke, and both islands were even more rural than they are now.

“We had no electricity; no indoor plumbing,” Carroll said. “We didn’t know how good we had it.”

World War II was more present in Buxton and Ocracoke villagers’ lives than most anywhere else in the United States. 

“We would hear the explosions (out in the ocean) then go to the beach to see the fires (out at sea),” Jim said.

One of those explosions was when a U-boat on May 11 of that year torpedoed the HMT Bedforshire, a British trawler pressed into military service to ferry supplies along the United States coast, killing a joint Canadian and British crew of 36 enlisted men and four officers.

A photograph of the Buxton interment in May 1942 of Fourth Engineer Officer Michael Cairns of the Royal Merchant Navy.

A photograph of the Buxton interment in May 1942 of Fourth Engineer Officer Michael Cairns of the Royal Merchant Navy.

For 74 years, Ocracoke has remembered the four British sailors whose bodies washed ashore.  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 sailors from the San Delfino are always remembered the day before the Ocracoke event in Buxton, Dare County.  These are the only WWII British cemeteries in the United States.

After the Ocracoke ceremony, the brothers presented a photograph of the Buxton burial, taken by then-commander George Harrison Meekins, to Captain Patricia Hill, commanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard Sector in Hatteras.

Commander Mark Lister, Senior British Officer at the Naval Ocean Processing Facility, Dam Neck, Va., represented the Naval Attache, and attended the ceremony for the first time on Great Britain’s behalf. 

“The beautiful beaches that draw significant numbers of visitors today were littered with twisted metal and crude oil and, unfortunately, every so often with the bodies of those men lost at sea,” he said.

“That these men were taken care of so reverently is testament to the nature of military men during periods of high tension, that they continue to be kept so well, is a mark of the bonds that we have forged in many conflicts throughout the last century.”

 To read his full remarks, click here.

Commander Ian Wood, Assistant Naval Attache of Canada and Ocracoke School Seniors Cecilia Carter, left and Josie Winstead help at the 2016 British Cemetery Ceremony.

Commander Ian Wood, Assistant Naval Attache of Canada and Ocracoke School Seniors Cecilia Carter, left and Josie Winstead help at the 2016 British Cemetery Ceremony. Photo: P. Vankevich

Commander Ian Wood, assistant Canadian Forces Naval Attache, based in Washington, D.C., told how May 1 in Canada is remembered as the Battle of the Atlantic Day to commemorate the sacrifices made by the thousands of Canadians who fought so valiantly during the Battle of the Atlantic, which ran from 1939 to 1945.

“For me personally as a naval officer I had driven by the Outer Banks many times in my ship and always saw a little glimmer on the radar – just a small sliver-so it’s nice to finally be here,” he said at the thank-you luncheon.

Brent Zado, the officer-in-charge at the Hatteras Coast Guard station, spoke about when he was a newly-minted 19-year-old officer stationed at Ocracoke, he visited the cemetery site and learned about the death and destruction so many decades ago and was humbled.

“I went back to my commanding officer and simply said ‘I get it now,’” he said. “We honor every soldier that has served in defense of our nation. The people of Ocracoke remember, the British and Canadians remember.”

Ocracoke School Senior Cecilia Carter read the narrative of what happened to the Bedforshire and Senior Josie Winstead read the roll call of names of the fallen sailors.

Commander Javier Delgado of the Coast Guard welcomed the assembly and Lt. Matthew Shepard, Coast Guard chaplain, gave the invocation and benediction.

Among the many attendees were Joanna Simpson and her son Jack. They were visiting Joanna’s sister Manda Holden, who lives on the island. From England, they attended the ceremony for the first time and noted a family connection.

“Our stepfather, David Richardson, served on the HMS Saxifrage patrolling the waters,” said Joanna. The Saxifrage was a Flower-class corvette used during World War II, specifically with the Allied navies as anti-submarine convoy escorts during the Battle of the Atlantic

David was awarded the Arctic Star medal for campaign service during the Second World War.

Jack, who now lives in New York City, was visiting on a holiday.

“I didn’t expect a connection to the island with Grandpa David and this beautiful ceremony,” he said. “It was a pleasant surprise.”

Daniel Couch, president of the Friends of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, thanked all of the individuals and organizations involved in the ceremonies.

Volunteers help serve at the reception in the Ocracoke Community Center following the ceremony.

Volunteers help serve at the reception in the Ocracoke Community Center following the ceremony. Photo: C. Leinbach

While both cemeteries are maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard, the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum and the National Park Service help with the Buxton site.

The Friends of the Graveyard of the Atlantic organize the two ceremonies with coordinating help on Ocracoke by Crystal Canterbury and the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association.

Marching in the opening procession were members of the Coast Guard Honor Guard, who also gave the 21-gun salute; members of Ocracoke Boy Scout Troop No. 290. The Coast Guard bagpipe band led the procession.

Howard Bennink played taps following the ceremony.

Peter Vankevich contributed to this story.

The final salute to those who died in defense of the United States.

The final salute to those who died in defense of the United States. Photo: C. Leinbach

The Coast Guard Honor Guard gives the 21-gun salute.

The Coast Guard Honor Guard gives the 21-gun salute. Photo: C. Leinbach

Richard Eagles or Margate, Fla., bows before the commemorative wreaths in honor of the Royal Navy Patrol Service of which the Bedfordshire was a part. Eagles' uncle, Jeffrey Palmer of England, was a member of the service.

Richard Eagles of Margate, Fla., bows before the commemorative wreaths in honor of the Royal Navy Patrol Service of which the Bedfordshire was a part. Eagles’ uncle, Jeffrey Palmer, 92, of England, was a member of the service. Photo: C. Leinbach