Death Lurked in the North Channel

November 11 is Armistice Day commemorating the armistice signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany at Compiègne, France, for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front, which took effect at eleven o’clock in the morning—the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918. (Armistice Day Memorial to Soldiers from Berrien County, GA Killed During WWI )

Death Lurked in the North Channel

When the HMS Otranto troopship sank  during the closing days of World War I, men of Berrien County, GA were among the victims and survivors.   The Otranto broke apart on the rocks off the coast of Islay, Scotland after being rammed by the HMS Kashmir.  The two vessels were among 13 troopships in Convoy HX50 which departed New York harbor in September 1918.  Hundreds of men perished in the Otranto sinking.  Five Berrien County men survived the ordeal:  James Marvin DeLoach,  James Grady Wright, Henry Elmo DeLaney,  Ange Wetherington and  Early Steward.     The Kashmir was damaged in the collision, but made it to port at the Firth of Clyde.   On the fifth anniversary of the loss of the Otranto, John Hedrick McCarroll, a Davenport, IA soldier who witnessed the collision from the deck of the HMS Kashmir, wrote about his experience. McCarroll was a newspaper reporter for the Davenport Daily Times which published his story, transcribed below.

 

John Hedrick McCarroll, of Davenport, IA was aboard the HMS Kashmir when she collided with the HMS Otranto on October 6, 1918. Image source: villageplanter1

John Hedrick McCarroll, of Davenport, IA was aboard the HMS Kashmir when she collided with the HMS Otranto on October 6, 1918. Image source: villageplanter1

ROLL CALL OF THE OTRANTO DEAD FROM BERRIEN COUNTY, GEORGIA

 

[ Note: The article below reflects the institutionalized prejudice that existed in the U.S. Army during WWI. Despite the fact that units such as the Buffalo Soldiers fought with valor and distinction, African-American soldiers were rarely allowed any opportunity to participate in combat roles. Most of the 350,000 African-American WWI soldiers were assigned to support roles in segregated units.  The commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. Pershing, said privately,We must not eat with them, must not shake hands with them, seek to talk to them or to meet with them outside the requirements of military service. We must not commend too highly these troops, especially in front of white Americans.”   The 600 African-American soldiers aboard the Kashmir were bound  for stevedore duty at the American Army docks, with two white officers “in charge of the negroes.”   While the white soldiers’ response  to the emergency was described as “assembled in platoon formation…inspiring, almost heroic…standing stiffly at attention”, the article characterizes the “negro soldiers in panic…fear crazed,” confused and on the verge of mutiny. ]

An American soldier on board the troopship Kashmir when it collided with and wrecked the troopship Otranto off the coast of Northern Scotland on October 6, 1918, furnished a description of the rescue of troops from the Otranto by the destroyer HMS Mounsey

An American soldier on board the troopship Kashmir when it collided with and wrecked the troopship Otranto off the coast of Northern Scotland on October 6, 1918, furnished a description of the rescue of troops from the Otranto by the destroyer HMS Mounsey

Davenport Daily Times
October 6, 1923

Death Lurked in North Channel for Davenport Men

Troopship Carrying Them To France in Crash Off Rocky Coast of Scotland

        Today is the fifth anniversary of the collision of the troopships Kashmir and Otranto of the British navy, engaged in carrying American troops to France, off the coast of Northern Scotland. To a large number of Davenport men, the memories of five years ago are not entirely agreeable although they still quicken the pulse of the several hundred Davenporters whose lot it was to be passengers on the Kashmir. They were members of the 126th Field Artillery of the 34th division. Some were in Battery B, others in Battery D and a score or more in the supply company. All three units were originally organized in Davenport as part of the First Iowa Field Artillery, which became the 126th Field Artillery upon its mobilization at Camp Cody, New Mexico.
        The following story of the collision and wrecking of the Otranto, as viewed from the Kashmir, was written by a Times reporter who was a member of the 126th Field Artillery.

 

 

BY JOHN H. M’CARROLL

          Five years ago this morning, and the waters of the North Channel running wild.
         A fog, impenetrable and heavy as a blanket, hung about us, while a furious inferno of waves tossed our little ship, the H.M.S. Kashmir, about like a winter gale whipping a falling leaf. Somewhere off to starboard and aft were the other twelve boats in our convoy – we knew that from the sound of their fog horns as they felt their bewildered way through the murk: now heard plainly as one or the other came close and now faintly as they shied away from our own screeching horn.
         Thirteen days out from Hoboken and rumor rampant above and below deck that this was the day we were due in Liverpool, brought all who could move to the upper deck with the coming of the day, keenly awaiting the first sight of anticipated land. Christopher Columbus’ mutinous crew could not have sought more anxiously for sight of land which they did not know nor yet believe lay ahead of them, than did the two thousand or more land-born and land-loving soldiers who made up the cargo of that glorified cattle boat, thirteen long days and nights out of the port of New York.
         Then, suddenly, off to the east, the fog lifted enough to give us who were anxiously watching, a fleeting view of land. Far from inviting, it is true, was that brief sight of the wave-washed and forbidding shore of Northern Scotland, but to men, the vast majority of whom were experiencing their first ocean voyage, it might have been a glimpse of Paradise itself!
         Someone shouted. Quickly the port rail was a crowding, seething mass of khaki. The valiant troopship, regardless of what might and had been said about it by weary and seasick soldiers in the long days and nights of that frightful trip, accomplished something of a miracle by resisting what must have been a mighty impulse to turn over on her side and dump us all into the sea. She likely listed to port with the added weight so quickly rushed to her portside, but it is a certainty that if she did, there was a wave waiting to meet her sufficiently to send her tilting back to a starboard list.

The Fog Descends

          The fog descended to the water again and shut off the sight of land. We stood around on deck for a while, waiting in vain for the curtain to lift, then trooped jubilantly below deck for our breakfast rations.
          At long tables, placed sidewise of the boat, we ate our meals as best we could, juggling food and mess kits on a surface similar in many respects to a roller coaster, as a playful sea bandied the vessel about. Some of us – no, most of us, were strangely destitute of appetite or taste for food. Both had disappeared with the fading skyline of New York and the coming of the rough water of the open sea, our first day out, and had not as yet been recovered. A few hardy souls, though, never knew a day of seasickness on the entire trip and while the rations were aplenty, they generally managed to take advantage of the proferred food of less fortunate and genuinely miserable fellow passengers.
         In the midst of the meal, with the boat rocking from side to side, as it had rocked from the first day, there came a new and mysterious plunge of the ship. It came suddenly – a thrump! – and a jar that shook us from our seats.
         “That was the wrong kind of a wave,” laughingly remarked a sergeant, picking himself up from the floor, while the smile froze on his face as from afar off came the six short whistle blasts – the dreading warning of a submarine attack, a warning in which we had been repeatedly schools since shortly after coming on the boat.
         The guards, stationed at the bulkhead openings took up the alarm with their whistles and it traveled rapidly back to the stern and the sick bay where we were quartered with some 600 or more seasick and flu-stricken soldiers.

Guards Close Doors

          With the blasts came the grinding and crashing of heavy steel doors as the guards, in compliance with orders, made haste to convert the vessel into a series of watertight compartments – their first duty in the event of a submarine alarm.
         We in the sick bay had our instructions also. At the sounding of the alarm we rushed to previously assigned patients and as rapidly as possible hurried them into life-belts.
         The boat was still rocking but there was a weird silence, broken only by the groans and moans of the sick men and the voices of the hospital corps men, urging their patients to assist in getting the life-belts on. No one stopped to analyze the silence – not until sometime later did we realize that the engines had been stopped.
         Their awkward lifebelts strapped on the three or four patients to whom I had been assigned, my curiosity overcame whatever timidity I might have felt, and I ventured up on deck.
         What I saw when I reached there, and gazed forward, gave me something to remember always – and gave me too, an assortment of varied emotions never before or since experienced.
         The fog had lifted slightly. I saw a huge ship, instantly recognized as the Otranto of our own convoy, to all appearances lying directly on top of the bow of our own ship. We had rammed it squarely amidship, in the fog!
         Then a great rushing mountain of a wave struck us and the Otranto was carried away from her right-angled perch on the bow of our boat.
         Another mountain of water came rushing on, struck the floundering ships and the Otranto swung around to our port side, revealing for the first time, the wicked damage of our own knife-like steel bow. As easily as a butcher knife cutting into butter, our bow had pierced the heavy armor of the ship, tearing and shattering its way through the steel and timber of the decks and frame and leaving a great gaping wound from which, at the water line, clouds of steam were rolling up as the chilled waters flooded the boiler and engine rooms of the boat.

Troops Crowd Rails

          Panic-stricken passengers, the kahki of the American soldier and the blue of the British sailor, were crowding the rails or rushing about on the upper decks. The bodies of those unfortunates caught below deck as the knife-like thrust of our bow cut into the heart of the the troopship, were falling through the fissure in its heavy armor and sinking as rapidly as they struck the tempestuous sea. A few bodies, lifebelts on, were held aloft on the crest of the waves and were rapidly washing out to sea.
          As wave after wave struck the stricken liner, listing badly to port and sinking rapidly, it drifted further away from our own boat, in the direction of the rocky shore, now more plainly visible with the lifting of the fog. At a time when it seemed as though the boat must break in two and go down, it was caught on the crest of a tremendous wave and plunged, bow first, onto the ragged ledge of rocks extending out from the coast.
         And as it crashed onto that forbidding shore, from afar off, skipping over the violent seas as lightly and quickly as a gull, came a little destroyer, flying high up on its mast, the Union Jack of the British navy. Never hesitating for a minute, the gallant little warship swung close to the wrecked liner. There was a fleeting glimpse of bodies hurling themselves from the towering rails onto the decks of the speeding destroyer and of still others failing to estimate the jump and dropping like leaden pellets into the sea, struggling for a few tragic seconds and then disappearing below the surface of the raging waters. Like a flash the destroyer swung about and headed back through the waves again for the rapidly sinking troopship. Again it swung close, as close as the turbulent sea would permit, and agin desperate passengers jumped for its decks in a last attempt to stave off the hovering spectre of death.

         Ignoring the peril to itself and crew, the doughty little destroyer made repeated trips to the doomed transport and as our own vessel drifted out of the range of vision, it was still at its heroic task.

          In the meantime, on our own boat, a strange silence prevailed. Forward on the three decks, the troops were assembled in platoon formation at the lifeboat stations. There was something inspiring, almost heroic in the sight of those khaki-clad men, standing stiffly at attention and looking out on a vast expanse of churning water in which all must have realized there was little hope for life should the boat go down.

Soliders in Panic

          Further aft, there was more confusion, on that portion of the deck assigned to some six hundred negro soldiers, going abroad for stevedore duty at the American army docks. The two white officers in charge of the negroes were experiencing difficulty in keeping them in formation and were only partially succeeding in avoiding a panic by freely displaying their automatics.
          One giant of a man, dodging from the ranks, slipped over to the rail of the deck and with a pocket knife was severing the ropes holding a cylindrical life preserver to the rail.
          An officer spied him.
          “Get back, you!” he roared and brandished his automatic in the startled, fear-crazed negro’s face. Dropping the knife, the giant slunk back into line. A few of the poor devil’s were praying, their mutterings and mumblings sounding above the roar of the waves beating against the boat.
           Still further aft, on the poop deck, at the entrance to the stairway leading to the sick bay, a small group had gathered. The regimental chaplain was there, after fighting his way back from the soldiers’ mess where he was breakfasting when the crash came.
            Beside him stood the regimental surgeon in the uniform of a major. There was a haggard, drawn look on the face of both men, the result of constant administering to the sick and dying during the crossing voyage, coupled with this new and graver danger which threatened well men together with sick.
           A few of the crew, a tough, uncouth and hardened lot, hovered about the wheel house, all watching with strained eyes the plight of the doomed transport off to our port side.
           After what seemed like hours of waiting, but which was in reality only half an hour if not less, an orderly came struggling aft, pushing his way through the disordered ranks of negroes and clambering rapidly up the narrow steel stairway leading to the poop deck and entrance to the sick bay.
          He stopped in front of the major, saluted stiffly, and in a few hasty words reported that the boat would stay afloat, then saluted again, turned on his heel and treaded his way back toward the forward decks.

Joy Greets Report

          A hospital orderly, standing near the major, heard the message and let out a joyous shout, which was taken up by others and was soon traveling the length and breadth of the boat. It was a great shout of relief and of suppressed excitement.
          In a few minutes the engines were again grumbling and soon the transport began moving ahead. The other boats of the convoy had disappeared, but in their place were a half dozen or more destroyers, out to meet and escort us into harbor.
           All day long we sailed down the coast of Scotland, past little white lighthouses, glistening in the sunlight from their precarious positions atop protruding rocks, past Ailsa Crag, jutting up in the sea like a sand dune on the desert, and past quaint little villages ad hamlets nestled in the rocky shores. As twilight descended, we dropped anchor in the unruffled waters of the Firth of Clyde. To the wearied, nervous and excited men aboard the ship, the twinkling lights on shore were as the lights of home, on the night of that tumultuous day.
          Early next morning a tugboat steamed out to our anchored boat, fastened its steel cable to the shattered bow and towed us down the Clyde river. At nightfall we tied up at the Glasgow dock where we unloaded and marched to waiting troop trains which carried us speedily to camp in the southern part of England.
          It was a week later when we learned, for the first time, of the fate of those aboard the Otranto. Of the twelve hundred men who had sailed from Hoboken, six hundred or more of whom were British sailors and marines composing the crew of the vessel, an auxiliary cruiser of the British navy, less than half were taken off by the valiant British destroyer, the Mounsey, as the boat pounded itself to pieces off the coast of Scotland. A very few, cast into the seas as the boat finally broke in two and sank, were washed ashore and lived to tell about it, but on the rocky shore near where the catastrophe occurred, tenderhearted natives spent days in recovering and burying the bodies of the victims of the ill-fated crash.
           They were laid away side by side and the plot of ground was for several years known as the Otranto cemetery, until the removal of most of the bodies of Americans to their native land, led to the abandonment of the burying ground.
          American tourists who have visited the spot in Northern Scotland in recent years report only a few scattered graves remaining, those of British sailors and marines, unclaimed by relatives or friends.

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Old Ray City Fire Department

Today, Ray City, GA has a fine volunteer fire department housed in a modern facility on the south side of Main Street.  In the 1970s, the fire department consisted of a one-engine garage on the ground of City Hall.

Fire station at Ray City, GA, 1978

Fire station at Ray City, GA, 1978