THE HOME FRONT 55 say we haven’t forgotten you,” Philip says. The four sailors buried here served on the HMS Bedfordshire, sunk during a bleak period of history when the waters off the Outer Banks were known as “torpedo junction.” It was the early days of 1942, not long after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, thrust the United States into World War II. Germany quickly imple-mented a secret plan for a submarine assault on the Eastern Seaboard, intended to capital-ize on poor American war preparations and strike at the merchant sea-lanes just off the Atlantic coast. The initial assault included just five submarines, or unterseeboots, but against an undefended shore and ships that didn’t even take the barest of precautions they proved devastatingly effective. From January to June 1942, more than 70 ships were sunk off the Carolina coast. “It happened right offshore,” says Philip Howard, a local historian who publishes a monthly journal about Ocracoke Island’s past. “It would rattle windows. People would see the fire and the smoke.” Britain offered to help, and sent 24 Royal Navy vessels to patrol the coast. “They were arctic trawlers they brought down that were refitted with weapons — depth charges and swivel guns,” Howard says. Among them was the Bedfordshire. On May 11, 1942, it was sent from its base at Morehead City to look for a U-boat sus-pected The British Cemetery on Ocracoke Island is the final resting place for four sailors from the HMS Bedfordshire who were killed in action while defending the North Carolina coast in the early months of World War II. www.wrightsvillebeachmagazine.com WBM to be operating off Ocracoke Island. The following day, the hunter became the hunted. In the predawn hours the ship was torpedoed and went down. All hands were lost. The 34-man crew included Sub Lieutenant Tom Cunningham. A few days before the Bedfordshire’s final, fateful voyage, Lt. Cunningham met Ocracoke resident Wahab Howard at a restaurant in Norfolk, Virginia. “In those days, they would typically seat you at a table with somebody else,” Philip Howard says. “He ended up sitting with Lieutenant Cunningham and talking with him. Then Lt. Cunningham went back to his ship and Wahab went back to the island.” A few days later the body of a British sailor washed up on Ocracoke. “When Wahab heard that a body had washed up and had a dark beard, he went down to the Coast Guard station and iden-tified him,” Howard says. “He recognized the ring he was wearing.” Three more bodies were discovered on Ocracoke beaches. One was identified as telegraph operator Stanley Craig. The other two were unknown. Ocracoke residents wanted to honor these brave men who perished so far from home, defending American shores. A local family donated land for a small cemetery. The caskets were wrapped in Union Jacks that, in a piece of tragic irony, Cunningham previously had given to Aycock Brown, a Naval investigator who was married to an Ocracoke Island native. Amasa Fulcher, a lay leader in the local Methodist church, conducted the graveside ceremony. “From the very beginning the local com-munity was involved,” Howard says. Four crosses originally marked the burial plots. They were eventually replaced by regulation gravestones donated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The four crosses now sit outside the white picket fence of the graveyard as a second memorial. There are coins on top of the cross arms, left in mute thanksgiving for the sailors’ sacrifice. Judith Biggs opened her purse and added some of her own. “I think it is poignant,” Judith says. “It’s quite moving that people put coins on the crosses.” A fifth sailor believed to be from the Bedfordshire is buried in an even smaller cemetery on Hatteras Island. After washing up on a Hatteras beach, the unknown sailor was buried next to a British sailor from the San Delfino, a merchant vessel sunk a year earlier. North Carolina granted a perpetual lease for the two small cemeteries in the Outer Banks to the British government, establish-ing the corners of foreign fields as little pieces of Great Britain, and reminders of the brave sailors from far away who made the ultimate sacrifice.
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