HMS Otranto Sank Ninety-four Years Ago

A day to remember Berrien County men and all those who were lost in the sinking of HMS Otranto.

On October 6, 1918, on a stormy North Atlantic Sunday morning, the WWI troopship HMS Otranto went down with the loss of 351 American troops and 80 British crew members. Among the dead were 25 soldiers from Berrien County, GA.

The Otranto was lost after a collision with HMS Kashmir, another liner turned troopship. In poor visibility in the rough seas between the Northeast coast of Ireland and the Western Isles of Scotland, Otranto was rammed by the Kashmir after a steering malfunction. She was holed on the port side forward and, in the heavy swell, began to list. Many men were rescued by the heroic effort of the destroyer Mounsey before the stricken ship hit rocks and became grounded. With the heavy seas pounding her continually against the rocks the ship eventually broke up and sank off the coast of the island of Isley.

News of the disaster was slow in coming to the states. The following story appeared in the New York Sun one week after the sinking. (transcript provided below)

THE NEW YORK SUN,
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 13, 1918.
364 MEN CHURNED TO DEATH IN SEA

Otranto Splits in Half on Rocks and Soldiers Die in Wreckage.

HELPLESS CROWDS WATCH

Terrific Storm Prevents Any Attempt at Rescue on Steep Coast.

An Irish Port, Oct. 12. – American soldiers to the number of 364 or 366 perished when the British armed mercantile cruiser Otranto and the transport Kashmir crashed in the North Channel, between Scotland and Ireland, last Sunday.
Three hundred American soldiers and thirty French sailors and 266 members of the crew of the Otranto have been landed at a port in Northern Ireland. Sixteen other survivors have been picked up at Islay. More than 300 bodies had been recovered this morning and many of them have been buried.
The Otranto is a total wreck on the island of Islay. The Kashmir landed its troops at a Scottish port without loss of life.
The troopships came in collision while a heavy storm was raging and the Otranto with a gaping hole in her side drifted helplessly toward the rocky coast.

“Swim for it” shouted Captain.

A number of the troops on board were from the interior of the United States and were without experience at sea. They had preferred to remain on the bigger ship rather than risk jumping to the small destroyer Mounsey and they seemed to be cheered by the sight of land.
The hopes of the men that they would able to make a safe landing-, however, were dispelled by the Otranto’s captain when he shouted from the bridge:
“Well, boys, we will have to swim for It!”
About that time the troopship slid with hardly a jar on to a shelving; rock, which, as a wave receded, bit its teeth into the chip’s timber and held her in a viselike grip. After that the tragedy moved quickly to its climax.
The fury of the storm seemed vented on the pinioned and helpless vessel and in league with the vicious sea which began to rend and tear the ship to pieces. The steel deck house was wrenched bodily from its fastenings by the enormous waves and was hurled into the breakers, sweeping many men away with it.

On Rocks Mile From Shore.

The ship had struck about a mile from shore and on the cliffs, stood groups of Islanders eager to send aid, but which it was impossible even to attempt. Owing to the terrible wind there was no chance of getting a line to the ship, which was now fast breaking up.
Scores of men began to Jump and many immediately were seized by the waves and hurled against the sides of the ship. About noon the Otranto was lifted, on the crest of a high comber and dashed back to the rock so violently that the vessel broke squarely in two. The mast flipped short, killing men as it fell.
One section of the hulk turned side wise, emptying all hands still clinging to the deck into the boiling surf. The other section proved a plaything of the waves and speedily was ground to pieces on the rocks.
The ship’s remaining company were now struggling In the water. The slim chance they might have had of getting ashore, was virtually dissipated by the wreckage from the whip, through which the best swimmers were unable to win their way.
The experience related by William Richards typifies that of the others but perhaps is a bit more sensational. He said:
“The fellows were fine. We knew that when the ship went fast on the rocks so far out we would not have much chance to save our skins. But we all seemed determined to make a good try.

Captain Hurled Into Sea.

‘A wave washed me off and I managed to get clear of the ship. The first man I recognized In the water was the captain, who was thrown overboard when the mast broke away. He was standing straight up, treading water and looking about for something to grasp
“There were three men on a mattress riding in to shore as though they were enjoying life, but while I watched them and wishing I were on it too a big roller swept them all off and banged them against the rocks.
“I saw five or six others hanging on a bench. Some managed to climb on the tin rafts lowered from the ship, but every raft I saw was smashed to pieces against the vessel or on the rocks.
The noise of the wreckage grinding on the rocks was fierce, and any fellow who got into the wreckage was as good as gone. There were dozens of the boys floating around me, all dead, with nothing but their blue faces out of the water.
“A big roller carried me into a kind of a cleft in the rocks and I was thrown upon the side. I must have passed out. When I came to I saw two British soldiers on the other side of the ravine. They threw me a rope, which I made fast and crossed hand over hand.”
Joseph Pollock said he believed many more of the soldiers would have been saved but for the steep banks of the cliffs.” In one little cove twenty-eight bodies were counted.

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