Veterans Day prompts reflection on American sacrifice in wartime—as it should, but not on that alone. The war that ended with the Armistice of November 11, 1918, was also the first in which the United States and the United Kingdom formally allied themselves in battle. In the following decades this alliance persisted tacitly between the two nations and was dubbed the “Special Relationship.”
The relationship received its first major test in the early years of World War II. In 1940 and 1941, as we all know, Britain desperately needed help, which America supplied for a price and just in time. (The Lend-Lease Act and the “Destroyers for Bases” deal saved the day.) But helping out a distant ally is one thing; fighting near home is quite another. In January 1942, German U-boats began targeting cargo ships and tankers on America’s eastern seaboard, attacks that tested the Special Relationship yet again. This time it was Britain who came to America’s aid. As a result of this conflict, there is now a British cemetery on Ocracoke Island off the coast of North Carolina, which is the smallest Commonwealth War Graves Commission site in the world. For an American, it must also be one of the most moving.
America was ill-prepared to defend its Atlantic coast. The treacherous shoals off North Carolina’s Outer Banks had long been known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, but in 1942 a new and even grimmer moniker took hold: Torpedo Junction. The U.S. Navy had few anti-submarine assets and at first had forsaken the convoys to protect shipping lanes. Merchant seamen paid the price and German U-boats enjoyed easy hunting. By the end of April, sixty ships had gone to the bottom from enemy action, and the Americans asked for help. The British responded with what they had: two dozen armed fishing trawlers of the Royal Navy Patrol Service, a makeshift fleet first assembled during World War I that was recommissioned in 1939 to protect Britain’s coastlines. Jokesters called it “Harry Tate’s Navy” (after an old music-hall performer whose act was always a shambles) or, more aptly, “Churchill’s Pirates.” The ships were tiny, poorly armed, and slow, but at least they were a presence, and presence can deter. One of the fleet’s newer vessels, HMT Bedfordshire, now lies on the seabed off Ocracoke. The Bedfordshire was launched in 1935 as a Grimsby trawler and weighed a slight 440 tons, stretched to 160 feet in length, and was fitted out with a single four-inch gun, one Lewis machine gun, and eighty depth charges stored in the fish hold. She sailed for America in February 1942 to operate out of Moorhead City, North Carolina, with a complement of thirty-eight reservists, mostly drawn from the Royal Navy.
While on patrol early on May 11, the Bedfordshire took one torpedo from submarine U-558. The damage to the small vessel was devastating. She sank without sending a distress signal, taking all on board down with her. The loss was only confirmed three days later when two bodies in Royal Navy uniforms washed ashore at Ocracoke. They were identified as Third Officer Temporary Sub. Lt. Thomas Cunningham and ordinary telegraphist Stanley Craig. Locals built coffins (as lumber was scarce on Ocracoke, one coffin was fashioned from planks intended for an outhouse) and buried the dead in a small plot adjacent to the Howard-Wahab family cemetery. A week later, the Coast Guard recovered two more bodies, unidentifiable but presumably from the Bedfordshire. They were laid to rest beside Third Officer Cunningham and Telegraphist Craig in what became known as the Ocracoke Island British Cemetery.
The plot has three generations of markers. The graves were first marked with four white concrete crosses cast for the United States Navy in 1942 and fenced in a picket enclosure. They served for forty-one years, until the Commonwealth War Graves Commission assumed custody of the site, which had been leased in perpetuity to the British government in 1976. The Commission replaced the crosses with rounded headstones. Local citizens saved the crosses, which were stored under the Pony Island Motel until 2001, when the War Graves Commission agreed they could be displayed on site. You will find them today, planted just behind the third marker: a black granite slab commemorating the loss of the Bedfordshire and her crew and donated by the people of Ocracoke. It lists by name and rating each of the thirty-seven who were lost, plus the four buried here, two of them unknown. (The thirty-eighth, stoker Sam Nutt, who had been picked up by local police outside a Moorhead City bar and spent the night in jail, literally missed the boat and survived the war.) The marker is inscribed with the crests of the Royal Navy Patrol Service and the Dare County Heritage Trail, and every year on the Friday closest to May 11, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Royal Navy hold a memorial service where all the names are read. The White Ensign flies overhead through the live oaks and cedars.
The British have been leaving their bones on foreign fields for centuries, and these few join that multitude. All have their stories, like Third Officer Cunningham, who a few days before the sinking had met two Ocracokers ashore and supplied them, from the Bedfordshire’s stores, with six Union Jacks to drape over the coffins of British seamen lost on a torpedoed tanker. One of those six flags covered his own coffin at Ocracoke a few weeks later. Cunningham’s son, born in October 1942 and named Thomas for his father, traveled to Ocracoke after the war to do him honor. The Ocracokers Fannie Pearl Fulcher and Elsie Garrish returned the gesture, traveling to England to visit Barbara, Cunningham’s widow. Today visitors leave coins on the arms of the four original crosses, in silent tribute. At my last visit in October, the brass plaque that explains their history was adorned with a poppy.
Lines from Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” appear on another brass plate nearby: “If I should die, think only this of me.” Brooke, who died in 1915, is not the only war poet this scene summons up. The historian Max Hastings, in Operation Pedestal, published this year, on the British mission to relieve Malta in August 1942), brings attention to Brooke’s World War II equivalent, John Pudney. Pudney’s immensely popular “Missing” and “For Johnny”—in the poet’s words, “simple commentaries on the service and war occasions generally”—evoke a Betjeman-like mood and sympathy for ordinary Britons in wartime. “Convoy Job” is another, and would perhaps have been a more fitting epitaph for Sub. Lt. Cunningham and his lost shipmates:
Convoy the dead:
Those humble men who drown,
Dreaming of narrow streets, of alleys snug
In lamplight, love in a furrowed bed,
Pints in a Rose and Crown