Reprint of an article written by Bonnie Edwards,
February 1999, "Olde Kinston Gazette"
O n Ocracoke, one of the islands making up North Carolina's Outer Banks, there is a sign on the side of a winding lane that reads "British Cemetery." In the cemetery are four white stone crosses surrounded by a white picket fence, marking the graves of seamen of the British Royal Navy who were killed off the shores of the Outer Banks in May 1942.
A uthor L. Vanloan Naisawald published the results of his investigation into the cemetery's origins in the book "In Some Foreign Field - the Story Of Four British Graves On The Outer Banks."
I n his research, Naisawald found that the ship on which the men served during World War II was the H.M. S. Bedfordshire. She was an antisubmarine trawler operationally on loan to the United States Navy. She was sunk by the U-558 in the spring of 1942, and one of her officers and three of her crew members are buried in the little cemetery on Ocracoke.
A handful of people living on Ocracoke knew some of the crew members and recovered the bodies and helped bury them in 1942. One of the islanders, Aycock Brown of Manteo, North Carolina, was instrumental in providing leads. Also helping Naisawald with information concerning the crew members were Fannie Pearl Fulcher of Raleigh and Ocracoke, Wahab Howard, Harvey Wahab, and Jack Willis of Ocracoke and Arnold Tolson of Manteo. One of them provided Naisawald with a photograph of Lt. Thomas Cunningham, an officer aboard the Bedfordshire. The photo was taken by S.S. Stevenson of Henderson, N.C. two days before Lt. Cunningham's death.
A lso providing Naisawald with priceless information for his book was Cunningham's wife Barbara and other families of crew members.
D uring the war, Adolph Hitler had a stranglehold on the British Isles and unleashed his U-boats on the American coast to disable her manufacturing base in hopes of making her "a giant chained to its shores." The Germans called their offensive "The Great American Hunting Season." America's retaliation against the Nazis began January 14, 1942, off the shores of the Atlantic between Nova Scotia and Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The offensive called Paukenschlag ("Drum-roll") lasted three months before the Americans were able to drive off the U-boats.
D uring this time the people living along the Outer Banks were terrorized by the constant flow of wreckage cluttering their beaches. Naisawald described it as "pieices of clothing, shattered and splintered deck planking, crates and bundles of floating cargoes, and great oozing smears of dark oil - the blood of dead ships - stained the sands, making a walk along the edge of the surf an in-and-out endeavor to avoid stepping into the dirty mess. And of course there were the even grimmer reminders, the bodies in the surf."
N aval intelligence officers and FBI agents scampered up and down the North Carolina coast trying to keep up with rumors of subversive activities. One Swansboro man was suspected of making trips to Bear Island near Bogue Inlet to contact German submarines or to supply them with fuel or provisions. Some oil dealers were suspected of smuggling oil to the U-boats. None of these suspicions were confirmed.
T he H.M.S. Bedfordshire, part of a small flotilla of antisubmarine trawlers, was sent in February to help Americans fight off the U-boats. She was to arrive in early March. Skippered by Lt. R.B. Davis, RNR, she was a commercial fishing vessel which had been taken over by the Royal Navy at the outbreak of the war in 1939 and armed for antisubmarine duty. Although well equipped for battle, she was slow. The flotilla finally arrived in April and began patrolling the North Carolina coast. The Bedforshire's new home port was Morehead City.
O n a Sunday in early May of 1942, the Bedfordshire threw off her lines, cleared port and put out to sea for the last time. Naval intelligence had spotted 10-12 U-boats in the Atlantic at that time.
A round that same time, U-558 skippered by Kapitanleutnant Gunther Kresh went hunting in American waters in early May, cruising between Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout.
O n the evening of May 11, he spotted the Bedfordshire southeast of Cape Lookout and began tracking her. Kresh had no sinkings during his month at sea and decided to attack.
U -558 fired two torpedoes. They missed. The Bedfordshire gave no evidence of having seen the torpedoes pass or of having detected the presence of U-558. Fire Three hit the British ship and brought her down.
S ince there was no warning before the hit, U.S. Naval headquarters along the eastern seaboard considered her still on patrol.
A lthough the exact location is unknown, the Bedfordshire is believed to be located on the bottom of the Atlantic about 40 miles southeast of Cape Lookout in about 150 feet of water.
I n the early morning hours of May 14, Coast Guardsmen Arnold Tolson of Buxton and another guardsman known as "Okie" spotted something in the surf off Ocracoke. Jumping out of the truck and shedding his shoes, Tolson waded into the water and found a body. He and Okie put the body into the back of the truck and rushed toward Ocracoke Coast Guard Station. On their way, they discovered another body that had been spotted by an Ocracoke resident named Elwood Austin. Once the bodies had been placed in the station, Homer Gray, chief of the station, called Naval Headquarters in Morehead City.
O ne of the bodies was identified as that of Sub-Lieutenant Thomas Cunningham of the Royal Navy volunteer Reserve. The witness who identified him knew he had been serving on the Bedfordshire. The other body was identified as that of Stanley Craig, Ordinary Telegraphist, Royal Navy.
T hey were buried in makeshift caskets in graves on land donated by the local Williams family. The land was adjacent to their own family cemetery.
O n May 16, the Navy acknowledged that the Bedfordshire was missing in action and probably sunk.
A week later, Tolson was aboard the station's patrol boat USCG 63-067 about five miles northeast of Ocracoke Inlet, where he had found the first body. Two bodies were spotted in the water and recovered. The only lead provided for identification were dark blue turtleneck sweaters like those worn by the Bedfordshire's crew. Although the bodies were believed to have been those of two more Bedfordshire crew members, the official record listed them as "unknown."
A decision was made to bury the last two bodies with those of Lt. Cunningham and Seaman Craig. Some people believe the caskets were made from unused lumber donated by another local resident. Others believe they were built by T.A. Loving Company, which was building a naval installation on Ocracoke at the time.
U pon the request of Cunningham's widow, a Roman Catholic memorial service was held at the cemetery in December of 1942. Aycock Brown had requested that the U.S. Navy Section Base on Ocracoke help with clearing the area of brush and vines and erecting white wooden crosses. The Navy obliged and made military arrangements for the memorial service. A Protestant burial service was held, then the Roman Catholic rites, with full military honors.
S ometime in 1943, Brown and Commander J.J. Wilkinson, Commanding Officer of the Ocracoke Section Base had the area cleared of brush and a white picket fence erected around the four graves.
I n July of 1969, five seamen of the British Navy led by Chief Petty Officer D.R.E. Rowles arrived at the cemetery. In their station wagon they had lumber that had been taken off the aircraft carrier H.M.S. Eagle. The Eagle's skipper had learned about the graves and asked for volunteers from his crew to visit the cemetery as a work party. With saws, shovels, hammers and nails, the group removed the worn posts, rails and pickets and replaced them with "good English timbers."
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