British Cemetery ceremony 2017, Ocracoke, NC, 2017
Members of the American and Royal British Legion Riders blend water from England and Hatteras to honor the World War II sailors slain off the coast and buried in the British Cemetery. Photo: C. Leinbach

This story won third place in News Feature Writing in the 2017 N.C. State Press Assn. editorial competition.

By Connie Leinbach

This story was updated 5/16/2017 to correct who takes care of the Ocracoke site.

Water is a potent symbol for sailors, said Andrew W. Johnson, a Marine Corps veteran and member of the American Legion in Fredericksburg, Va., on Friday during the annual British Cemetery ceremony.

Johnson and several American and Royal British Legion Riders made a poignant closing when they blended water brought from England with that of Hatteras and anointed a wreath in honor of the fallen.

They were among other new visitors who added more layers to this annual ceremony to commemorate the 37 sailors and officers who lost their lives 75 years ago on May 11, 1942, when a German U-boat torpedoed the HMT Bedfordshire off the coast here.  Four British subjects are buried in the Ocracoke plot over which the British ensign flies.

The ceremony included members of the U.S. Coast Guard, attaches from England and Canada and Danny Couch, president of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, which coordinates the Ocracoke event and one in Buxton the day before.

Joy Whites of Banbury, England, one of the Legion riders, held the bowl in which the waters were blended and then sprinkled it on wreaths that were laid on the main headstone that lists all of the lost men. Decked out in black-leather vests laden with various insignia, the 18 riders were on an eight-day motorcycle ride along the Eastern seaboard.

British Cemetery ceremony, Ocracoke, NC, 2017
Thomas Cunningham, the son of slain sailor Sub-lieutenant Thomas Cunningham interred in the British Cemetery, speaks at Friday’s event. Photo by Corrie Smith, U.S. Coast Guard

“Nothing demonstrates our shared history more profoundly than this cemetery and this ceremony,” said Capt. Joe Karpinski, of the Royal Naval Tot Club of Antigua and Barbuda, afterwards. 

Karpinski, in his first visit to the island, following the main event held a “tot” ceremony, in which he had shots of Royal Navy Pusser’s Rum for any who wanted to partake in the kind of toast as the men on the Bedforshire would have done.

Each day, the sailors had a specific toast, he explained.

“On Friday, their toast was ‘To a willing foe and sea room and the Queen, God bless her,’” he said as visitors and veterans downed the dark rum.  The toast is to wish for a fair fight, he said.

Another special guest was Thomas Cunningham, the son of Sub-lieutenant Thomas Cunningham, one of the four sailors interred. All four sailors were interred on land donated by Alice Wahab Williams beside Teeter’s Campground.

“I thank most sincerely the Wahab family for their gift of this peaceful burial ground for my father and his shipmates,” Cunningham said during the ceremony. “And I thank the people of Ocracoke. They are an example of the generosity of the whole American people.”

Of the four British sailors interred here, Ordinary Telegraphist Second Class Stanley R. Craig is the other known sailor. Two other bodies were discovered a week later at the north end of the island. Though never identified, it was assumed they were from the Bedfordshire.

British Cemetery ceremony, Ocracoke, NC, 2017
Capt. Joe Karpinski, a member of the Royal Naval Tot Club of Antigua Barbuda, attended the ceremony and conducted a toast. Photo: C. Leinbach

Cunningham, who, was born after his father was killed, last attended the event in 2012. A retired commander from the Royal Navy Reserve, he gave a lecture Saturday evening at the Ocracoke Library on the Battle of the Atlantic (1939 to 1945).

“The Battle of the Atlantic was a campaign over tens of thousands of miles,” said Commodore Martin Connell, the British attaché based in Washington, D.C. “More soldiers were lost in that campaign than any other, and we’re still standing against tyranny.”

Although Cunningham’s mother never visited Ocracoke, island resident Fannie Pearl Fulcher traveled to England to meet her, Cunningham said after the ceremony.

“I used to get presents from Fannie,” he said. “Leather bomber jackets.”

Along with the three flower wreaths in front of the four, new wreaths laid this year were made of artificial poppies.

“They were Harry Tate’s Navy,” said Richard Eagles of Margate, Fla., about the Royal Navy Patrol.  Eagles, has represented this group for the last several years. “All they got was hand-me-downs,” he said while looking at the main headstone. “These men here probably went to sea in their fishermen clothes.”

The Bedfordshire was part of a flotilla of 24 trawlers pressed into the Royal Navy as escorts for British supply ships. They staged in Canada and sailed along the eastern Atlantic in the first six months of 1942.

German U-boats stalked offshore from New York to Florida and sank nearly 400 largely unarmed merchant vessels, hampering the delivery of badly needed food and war supplies to England.

Ocracoke School Senior Carson O’Neal reads the story of the Bedforshire’s demise. Behind him, from left, are Richard Eagles, representing the Royal Navy Patrol Service, Thomas Cunningham and Katherine Robinson of the U.S. Coast Guard. Photo: C. Leinbach

On May 11, 1942, the German U-boat, U-558, fired three torpedoes at the Bedfordshire. The third torpedo struck the vessel amidships killing everyone on board.

“The people here on the Outer Banks knew the war was on before the rest of the world,” said Michael Westhead of London, a first-time attendee and the standard bearer of the Prince of Wales Sea Training School, in an interview at the reception in the Community Center following the ceremony. “This is an extra special Christian ceremony, and you do it every year. We don’t forget and you don’t either.”

An alumnus of the school, which closed in 1975, Westhead said 84 alumni died in WWII.

He was impressed with the participation by youth to carry on the ceremony—the youngest member of the Coast Guard station in Hatteras and the Ocracoke School seniors who annually tell the story of the Bedfordshire and read the list of the men whose lives were lost.

Carson O’Neal read the narrative this year and Dylan Sutton read the roster, during which time the military representatives onstage stood at attention.

Frieda Grey French, 80, of Elizabeth City and a native of Buxton, attended with her family and said her father, Homer Grey, was the chief in charge of the Coast Guard station here.

“He buried Mr. Cunningham,” French said. “If my father could look down from heaven on this ceremony he’d be very honored.”

At the reception in the Community Center, Frieda Grey French of Elizabeth City holds a book about WWII on the Outer Banks. Photo: C. Leinbach

The annual ceremony is organized by the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras.

In addition to the Coast Guard and British representatives, also participating was Capt. Dermott Mulholland, the Canadian Forces Naval attaché.

Islander Howard Bennink played a new closing piece, “The Last Post,” on his trumpet.  Bennink said afterwards that volunteer event organizer Crystal Canterbury suggested he play this combination of bugle calls from all over the British commonwealth.

“I practiced since January,” he said. “It was pretty challenging.”

Canterbury, who works for Eastern National, a retail partner in the NPS visitor’s center, took over last year from longtime organizer Janey Jacoby.

“It was wonderful,” Canterbury said. “They all credited me with keeping the weather at bay.”

Weather forecasts had called for storms on Friday, but the skies remained cloudy and didn’t unload their rain until Friday night.

Canterbury enlisted about 20 volunteers to help with everything from tidying up the cemetery to helping with all aspects of the reception.  Cunningham gave a talk Saturday night in the Ocracoke Library on the Battle of the Atlantic.

Also participating with the U.S. Coast Guard were Lt. Joshua Branthoover, the M.C.,  Lt. Matthew Shepard, chaplain, and Cmdr. Javier Delgado, logistic dept. head.

While the British cemetery is a piece of England on Ocracoke, care for the site is done by Canterbury and volunteers, such as islander Stephanie Lyons with the National Park Service.

A ceremony in Buxton honors two British sailors who were casualties of the torpedoing of the San Delfino.

“There are no roses on sailors’ graves,
No wreaths upon the storm-tossed waves,
No last post from the Royals band,
No heartbroken words carved on stone,
Just shipmates’ bodies floating there alone.
The only tributes are the seagull’s sweeps,
And the teardrop when a loved one weeps.” –Author unknown

British Cemetery ceremony, Ocracoke, NC, 2017
Wreaths from Great Britain on the main headstone at the British Cemetery. Photo: C. Leinbach
British Cemetery ceremony, Ocracoke, NC, 2017
Ocracoke School Senior Dylan Sutton reads the roll call of the 37 Bedforshire crew. From left are Capt. Dermott Mulholland, Canadian Forces Naval attache, Richard Eagles, Thomas Cunningham and Danny Couch, president of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, Hatteras. Photo: C. Leinbach
British Cemetery ceremony, Ocracoke, NC, 2017
Members of the U.S. Coast Guard Honor Guard of Hatteras Station give the 21-gun salute following the ceremony. Photo: C. Leinbach
British Cemetery ceremony, Ocracoke, NC, 2017
Visiting dignitaries Thomas Cunningham, Capt. Dermott Mulholland, Canadian Forces Naval attache, Commodore Martin Connell, British Naval attache, and Richard Eagles, representing the Royal Navy Patrol, cut cakes with American, Canadian and British flag decorations, baked by Tama VanVleck, who works in the NPS Visitors Center. Photo: C. Leinbach
British Cemetery ceremony, Ocracoke, NC, 2017
First-time British Cemetery Ceremony attendee Michael Westhead of London, England, shows his flag of the Prince of Wales Sea Training School, his alma mater. Photo: C. Leinbach
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