British Cemetery at Ocracoke, Outer Banks, North Carolina

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Every year on the Thursday and Friday closest to May 11th British and American armed forces meet on British soil in North Carolina. The reason is a memorial service honoring the British seamen buried in a piece of land deeded by the U S government to Britain on the island of Ocracoke in the Outer Banks. It's a story of heroism and gratitude that is little known outside of the tiny town.

It begins in May of 1942, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. United States has been pulled into World War II. We're fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, and Europe is being pummeled by German Luftwaffe. But the shores of the continental United States are far from safe. In fact, from January to May, 1942, German U-boats shadowed our coastlines and sunk our merchant ships. And the proof was in the debris which washed up nightly on the shores of the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

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The German strategy was to batter the British, making it difficult for them to produce manufactured goods, and to destroy our shipping lanes, making it impossible for US manufacturing to supply our allies overseas with oil, iron, lumber, food stuffs and more.

The United States was not well-prepared to defend against the German attack, especially given the 2,500- odd miles of coastline from Maine to New Orleans. As a result, attacking our merchant ships began to look like shooting fish in a barrel. "In the first months of the war we were losing more than a ship a day" says Joseph Schwarzer, Executive Director of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum on Hatteras Island, "that's when the coast of Hatteras became known as the graveyard of the Atlantic and Torpedo Junction." Merchant ships went down in staggering numbers. From January to June, 1942, almost 400 ships were lost. So intense was the pounding taken by our merchant fleet that it was not uncommon to find bodies and remains of wrecks washed up on the beaches in the morning. "Residents would be awakened by a flash of light and the sound of distant explosions. They could actually see the ships on fire out on the water. In the morning they'd find debris washed up on shore," says Schwarzer.

American military response was slow. So, protection, initially, came not from our own armed forces but from our British allies with the loan of deep-sea trawlers, refitted with minesweeping equipment, a device designed to detect submerged objects, like submarines, and depth-charges to be able to attack the German U-boats.

For the crews of the ships HMS Bedfordshire, and the British tanker San Delfino, and unnamed others, the ocean, and the tiny hamlets of Ocracoke and Buxton, on the Outer Banks, North Carolina would be their final resting place.

The Bedfordshire

The HMT Bedfordshire started life as a commercial fishing vessel, crewed by men used to the dangerous waters of the North Sea. When England entered the war the Bedfordshire, among others, became part of the British Royal Navy. The trawler became the HMS Bedfordshire and joined a convoy of ships that made its way across the Atlantic to patrol the coastline of the mid-Atlantic states.

In early May the Bedfordshire's mission was to escort a small band of merchant ships to safe anchorage in Hatteras. Events, as they often do in wartime, grow murky after that. What is known is that on the morning of May 14, 1942 the bodies of two crewmen washed up on the shores of Ocracoke Island. They were identified as being from the Bedfordshire by a local, Aycock Brown, who had actually met one of the sailors by chance weeks earlier. Papers found on the body confirmed the identity as that of a crewman from the Bedfordshire.

Shortly thereafter, more bodies were found. Some of the men were identified as being from the Bedfordshire and were ultimately buried in a quiet corner of the cemetery in Ocracoke village.

Although no official group had responsibility for the cemetery the cemetery was initially cared for by the local citizens of Ocracoke. Many had loved ones serving in the armed forces and felt kinship and gratitude to the sailors buried there.

Eventually, a lease for a tiny plot was given to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for as long as the land remained a cemetery, and the plot officially became a British cemetery.

Today the United States Coast Guard station at Ocracoke maintains the property. A British flag flies at all times over the graves of those British sailors.

San Delfino and Buxton

Although less well-known, there's a second British Cemetery located in Buxton on Hatteras Island where two sailors from the British merchant vessel San Delfino are buried. Only one seaman was ever identified. "Both of the graves are marked, but one is for the unknown seaman," explains Schwarzer who was also instrumental in rediscovering and refurbishing the cemetery. The large plaque gives the story of the San Delfino and her loss.

Today a yearly memorial honors the sailors of both cemeteries. "It's held on the Thursday and Friday closest to May 11th which is when the Bedfordshire is believed to be sunk," says Schwarzer. The local community turns out to honor the men buried in their village, and the British always send a representative. In some years there's been other visitors, including a representative of the German Navy, there to recognizing and honoring the fallen British sailors.

The land is essentially British territory. It has been given in honor the men buried there so that they can rest in "home" soil. A plaque at the Ocracoke cemetery contains part of the poem by British poet Rupert Brooke:

If I should die think only this of me
that there's some corner of a foreign field
that is forever England
And so it is.

For more information on the British Cemetery the best source is In Some Foreign Field by L. VanLoan Naisawald. It is published by the Division of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources in Raleigh, NC.
A reader comments: There were several Canadian sailors serving on the Bedfordshire and I believe at least two of the bodies interned at Ocracoke remain unidentified. As such, a Canadian officer (as well as a British coutnerpart) is generally on hand for the ceremony each year Our thanks to JG of Ontario, Canada for this additional information.

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Neala McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

October 9th, 2015

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