In the early days of the United States’ entry into World War II, the Navy was woefully under-manned, under-shipped, and under-gunned. The Atlantic seaboard was especially vulnerable to German submarines, whose attacks took a major toll on the U.S. merchant fleet, killing thousands and sinking nearly 400 ships. The Germans called it the “Great American Turkey Shoot,” and North Carolina’s Outer Banks was dubbed “Torpedo Alley.”
What the U.S. lacked in naval protection, Great Britain could offer, so a fleet of English ships and seamen crossed the pond to help out while the American Navy ramped up production and recruitment.
It was May 11, 1942 when one such ship, the HMT Bedfordshire, was patrolling the coastline for German U-boats when it was struck by a torpedo. The ship went down, and all 37 sailors on board perished. Most of the bodies were never recovered, but four washed ashore near the small town of Ocracoke, North Carolina at the very southern tip of the Outer Banks.
The people of Ocracoke wanted to honor the four men, and a small plot of land was donated to create a British Cemetery alongside the village cemetery. Initially it was unofficially cared for by the townspeople, simply thankful for the sacrifice of the sailors. Eventually the grounds were leased in perpetuity to the British Commonwealth for as long as the sailors are buried there, so technically the four men are buried on home soil.
Each year, on the anniversary of the sinking, there is a ceremony for the sailors, with representatives of the British Royal Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard. Plaques near the graves tell the story of Bedfordshire and list all the names of those who died, and a few lines from 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.”
Know Before You Go
Ocracoke is at the end of North Carolina's Outer Banks islands, accessible only by boat or small plane. But there is regular ferry service, so check out ocracokevillage.com for details and links to services to get there. Once on the Island, the British Cemetery is in the village center, right next to the town's cemetery. The annual memorial ceremony for the sailors is on May 11th. There is another British Cemetery with its own story on Hatteras Island in the village of Buxton.