By Lou Washington

If you travel with any frequency, you may have had the experience of finding yourself accidentally standing in the middle of some place that has been associated with some particular historical event. I’m not referring to an intentional trip to some battlefield or monument. I mean the times you are driving or walking along and unexpectedly see something that tells you that you are in a hallowed place.

I remember one such occasion during a business trip to Dallas, Texas. We were driving around downtown Dallas looking for the free way entrance so we could return to our suburban hotel. We pulled around a corner and my first impression was a brief feeling of familiarity, then it struck me that we were in the middle of Dealey Plaza. All the images in my mind of the Kennedy assassination suddenly filled in my view. The overpass, the book depository building and the large Hertz sign were there almost frozen in time.

On another occasion I was in London and was changing buses near a place called Marble Arch. Standing on the sidewalk, I noticed a small sign that was a commemorative plaque for the martyrs of Tyburn. Tyburn was a notorious place of public execution in London for many centuries. It was not difficult of hear the echoes of the mob as they cheered on the executioners as they went about their work.

Several years ago, Barbara and I were on vacation. We had just completed a car show in Myrtle Beach and we wanted to find a nice quiet place to just decompress for a few days. Barb found a wonderful destination for us, Ocracoke Island. Ocracoke is the southern most inhabited island in the group making up the Outer Banks just off the Carolinas here in the States.

Most of Ocracoke is deserted. A small village is located on the southern end and is built around a harbor which hosts a ferryboat landing. There are no bridges between the mainland and Ocracoke, you have to travel there by ferry. The village also hosts a number of smallish motels and restaurants. There are numerous shops offering a variety of nautical themed items and local crafts.

For people who are just interested in knocking around for a few days, ignoring the time of day and forgetting about work, Ocracoke is perfect.

Being a history buff, I was intrigued by the fact that Ocracoke was the site of the final act in the illustrious career of Edward Teach, otherwise know as Blackbeard. But, as we found out, Blackbeard was not the islands only claim to maritime fame.

The British Cemetery on Ocracoke Island

As we were exploring during our first morning on the island, we encountered a unassuming sign that pointed us down a lane to the British Cemetery. I had that strange feeling that once again I was going to find myself standing in the middle of a bit history.

Our curiosity was piqued so we headed down the lane. After little more than a couple of hundred yards, we found ourselves standing in front of a small, meticulously maintained cemetery. A Union Jack flew from a mast next to four graves which were located behind a neat white fence.

A small plaque related the story of the British Cemetery on Ocracoke Island.

HMT Bedfordshire

On 17 July, 1935 The Smith’s Dock Co. of Middlesbrough, England launched a brand new commercial fishing trawler at Teesside. She was not a large ship, only displacing 443 tons, she measured 162 feet from bow to stern. Her beam was just 27 feet. She was christened Bedfordshire.

Her life as a commercial fisherman was short. In 1939 the British Admiralty knew the world was fast approaching a time of European instability if not outright hostility. They were all to familiar with the effectiveness of German U-boats from the previous world war. To counter this threat they embarked upon an aggressive plan to build out fleet vessels capable of countering the U-boats.

Anti-submarine vessels needed to to be fast, agile and able to carry depth charges. The Bedfordshire may have been designed for commercial fishing, but she was also an ideal platform for anti-submarine warfare. The Admiralty bought her in 1939 and outfitted her with a 4 inch gun, a machine gun and the requisite equipment for hauling and launching depth charges.

It was only a matter of months until His Majesty’s Trawler Bedfordshire was earning her keep in the Royal Navy patrolling British waters, ever vigilant for the hidden menace beneath the waves.

As the war spun up in earnest in Europe, across the Atlantic, the U.S. continued to ponder how they should become involved. There was no question that support for our allies was required in the European theatre of operations. Armament, supplies and other material was shipped across the Atlantic in support of England.

The attack on Pearl Harbor had decimated the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The prospect of fighting a war in both the Pacific and the North Atlantic as part of a general European war effort was not something that the U.S. was immediately prepared to do.

Meanwhile the Kriegsmarine was making its presence known to American shipping. In early 1942 over 30 ships were lost off the American coast to German U-boat actions. The U.S. Navy did not have anything in their inventory to protect our supply ships during their Atlantic transit to England.

The Royal Navy dispatched 24 ships to the U.S. Coastal waters to help defend the commercial fleet from the onslaught of U-Boat attacks. One these 24 ships was HMT Bedfordshire.

The deadly attacks continued with devastating effectiveness. By the end of April, 1942 an additional 45 ships were lost.

Bedfordshire was ported at Morehead City, NC. On May 10th, she was tasked with searching and destroying German submarines believed to be patrolling in the immediate area. She weighed anchor and put to sea in search of her underwater prey. She left port minus one sailor, Sam Nutt.

Sam had been arrested the evening before by the local authorities in Morehead City. After spending the night as a guest of the City of Morehead, Sam was released without being charged with any particular infraction. However, Bedfordshire had long since sailed so he began looking for a “ride” to hopefully meet up with Bedfordshire at sea and re-join his crew.

HMT Bedfordshire was never seen again by friendly forces. Early in the morning, the good ship met her fate.

The U-558, Kapitanleutnant Gunther Krech commanding, was conducting operations in the waters off Ocracoke Island. She had a busy night and had already attempted one strike against the British ship Loman. The Loman managed to escape and evade the U-588.

Kapitan Krech then engaged the Bedfordshire off Ocracoke Island at 5:40 am, May 11th. The initial torpedo was a clean miss. A second shot was taken and the result was a direct hit. The Bedfordshire sank immediately taking her entire crew of 37 men with her to the bottom.

On shore, no one really knew what had happened. Nearly ten days passed and two bodies washed up on the shore of Ocracoke Island. They were identified as crew members of the Bedfordshire. This served to confirm suspicions that the good ship had met her end. After two additional bodies were found later in May, there was no doubt that Bedfordshire had gone down.

Four Markers for Four Sailors

The four bodies were interred on Ocracoke Island in what would be come the British Cemetery. The good folks of Ocracoke Island as well as the U.S. Coast Guard maintain and keep the cemetery. It has been officially transferred to and falls under the auspices of the British government and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission by means of a lease in perpetuity.

I have been to many war monuments and seen many military cemeteries during my life. But, this little patch of ground, smaller than our living room, touched me deeply. Four small but immaculate graves. Someone, somewhere no doubt had waited and waited for years on end for a homecoming that never happened.

Most war cemeteries contain hundreds or thousands of markers for the fallen. The scale of the tragedy is so overwhelming that the you become numb to the numbers. It’s almost as if the vast numbers of dead somehow share the weight of the war making it easier for each individual.

But here, on Ocracoke, those four men, were forever removed from their homes and loved ones. On that night, they paid the full price and along with their shipmates bore the entire weight of that war.

This was indeed a hallowed place.