Ship’s crew remembered at British Cemetery on Ocracoke

Tom Cunningham considers it a great act of generosity that the people on the small island of Ocracoke would set aside a plot of land to bury his father and three other British sailors 70 years ago.

Sub-Lt. Thomas Cunningham was one of 37 crewmen aboard the HMS Bedfordshire when it was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of North Carolina on the night of May 11, 1942.

The Bedfordshire, a fishing trawler outfitted with guns and loaded with depth charges, was one of two dozen ships of its kind that the British navy loaned the United States in the early months of 1942, in an attempt to ward off the U-boats preying on tankers and freighters along the East Coast.

None of the Bedfordshire crew survived the sinking. Three days later, two bodies washed up on Ocracoke, followed by two more a week later. They were buried in that small plot now known as the British Cemetery.

On Friday, as they do every year, the U.S. Coast Guard, the British and Canadian governments and the people of the Outer Banks will hold a ceremony at the cemetery to commemorate those four sailors and the others who were never found. And for just the second time, Sub-Lt. Cunningham’s son will be there.

“For 70 years, give or take, the American people have been putting themselves through a great deal of trouble to commemorate those British seamen who died during the war,” Cunningham said by phone from his home near Liverpool. “It’s their way of saying thank you to us, and [coming to Ocracoke] is my way of acknowledging their thanks.”

The Bedfordshire was one of dozens of ships sunk off the Carolinas in the months after the December 1941 attacks on Pearl Harbor drew the U.S. into the war. With the American navy ill-equipped to stave off their attacks, German U-boats feasted on merchant ships, many carrying fuel and supplies bound for Great Britain.

One of those ships was the British tanker San Delfino, carrying fuel from Houston when it was torpedoed and sunk near Nags Head in April 1942. The body of one of the ship’s officers, Michael Cairns, washed up on Hatteras Island a month later and was buried along with another unidentified British sailor on what is now National Park Service land near the Cape Hatteras lighthouse. There will be a graveside service to remember them on Thursday.

The seaman’s code

It was not unusual for men from such merchant and war ships to arrive on the Outer Banks, dead or alive. And it’s not surprising that the people of the island would treat them well, giving the men of the Bedfordshire a formal burial, said Earl O’Neal, an Ocracoke resident who traces his roots on the island to the early 1700s.

Many islanders made a living at sea, on schooners or dredges in the big ports along the East Coast. They instinctively knew what to do with a body that had washed ashore.

“Seamen had an unwritten code,” O’Neal said. “They were more compassionate with each other.”

Cunningham was buried with a telegraph operator, Stanley Craig, and two unknown sailors presumed to have come from the Bedfordshire. Their caskets were wrapped in Union Jack flags that only a short time before Cunningham had given to Aycock Brown, an Ocracoke resident working for the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence. Brown had visited the Bedfordshire when it was docked in Morehead City, looking for flags to bury with four members of the San Delfino crew. Cunningham had given him a couple extra.

Amasa Fulcher, a lay leader of the local Methodist church, presided over the burial. Fulcher’s daughter, Fannie Pearl, wrote to Thomas Cunningham’s widow, Barbara, and their correspondence lasted several years, including a visit from Fulcher in the 1950s. O’Neal says Fannie Fulcher set up a pen-pal relationship between Tom Cunningham and a boy on Ocracoke, Lindsey Howard, when they were both about 15 years old.

“One of the things they exchanged was pictures of the new automobiles as they came out,” O’Neal said. “They will be getting together here when Tom gets in.”

Though often invited, Barbara Cunningham never came to Ocracoke. O’Neal says she did not want to open old wounds. She died about seven years ago, just after Tom Cunningham made his first trip.

Tom Cunningham, who himself had a 30-year career in the British naval reserve, never knew his father; he was born after the Bedfordshire was sunk. He says his father attended Liverpool University, where he met Barbara, and was teaching economics when the war broke out. He was 27 when he died.

On Tom Cunningham’s first visit to Ocracoke, in 2005, he brought a painting of the Bedfordshire to present to the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras. This year, he’s bringing a painting from a photograph of his father sitting on the bridge of the Bedfordshire, pipe in hand, apparently taken in Morehead City a few days before he died.

The U.S. Coast Guard will preside over Friday’s ceremony, but much of the organizing is done by the Friends of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, which also helps care for the cemetery. Joseph Schwarzer, the museum’s executive director, said that for only the second time this year’s ceremony will include a representative from the German government.

‘They gave up everything’

The ceremony will include speeches, a laying of wreaths and a 21-gun salute. But perhaps the most poignant moment, Schwarzer said, is the reading of the 37 names of the Bedfordshire crew, when even high-school students who attend grow silent.

“As you read the names and the ages, all of a sudden they get quiet,” he said. “It’s that realization that these were young men who lost their lives. They gave up everything, their futures, everything.

“It’s not right to forget that kind of sacrifice.”