The American Red Cross and the Otranto Rescue


When the ill-fated WWI troopship H.M.S. Otranto departed New York on September 24, 1918  little could her passengers have imagined how they would be met by the American Red Cross upon their tragic arrival in Europe.  Among the hundreds of soldiers aboard The Otranto was a contingent of Berrien County men, including  Ralph Knight and Shellie Webb, of Ray City, GA; James Marvin DeLoach,  with many Ray City connections; James Grady Wright of Adel, GA; and Early Steward of Nashville, GA. Other Berrien victims were honored in the Georgia WWI Memorial Book.

Shellie Webb and Ralph Knight, along with some two dozen other Berrien men, perished that stormy Sunday morning off the island of Islay, Scotland. Early Steward, of Nashville, GA was one of the very few who went into the sea and made it to the shore of Islay still alive. James M. Deloach and James Grady  Wright were among some 600 who managed to leap from the rails of the Otranto to the deck of the rescue ship Mounsey.

In October,1920, just two years after the sinking of the Otranto, George Buchanan Fife, a writer for Harpers Magazine and, later, biographer of Charles Lindberg, told the story of how the American Red Cross prepared for and answered the challenge of caring for the victims of the Otranto sinking.


In response to the 1918 sinking of the Otranto off the coast of Islay, Scotland, the “Flyinging Squadron” of the American Red Cross rushed aid and supplies to the Island.

The following exerpts are from Fife’s work, The Passing Legions: How the American Red Cross Met the American Army in
Great Britain, the Gateway to France,
     which is available for free online reading.

The destruction of the Otranto was not only the heaviest misfortune to befall the American troops in their hazardous voyaging oversea, but was one of the great catastrophes of the war, occurring at a time when American effort was at its utmost in the task of landing an army in France. As the censors in England withheld transmission of the story for five days it had only an ephemeral appearance in the press of America and many of the details in the foregoing narrative are here published for the first time.


The Otranto, a converted British auxiliary cruiser, doing duty as transport, was the flagship of a convoy bringing American troops to England. On this voyage she carried a detachment of 694 officers and men, most of them from the training camp at Fort Screven, near Savannah, Georgia; a crew of approximately 400 and also thirty sailors picked up from the boats of a French bark she had cut down in mid-ocean.

The destination of the convoy was Liverpool, and to reach it by what was considered the least dangerous path, once the vessels were in English waters, the course lay through the North Channel, a narrow, well patrolled passage between Scotland and Ireland.

But it was fated the Otranto should never make it. When at 9 o’clock on the morning of October 9, the squadron of troopships was almost at the Channel entrance and fairly in sight of the northern Irish Coast, a ninety-mile gale came racing out of the west and overwhelmed it. Under the terrific impact of the wind and the sea, the vessels staggered toward the opening, striving with every ounce of steam to gain it and the calmer waters which lay beyond. And all would have passed through in safety if a great wave had not disabled the steering gear of the Kashmir, one of the convoy.

In an instant she was out of control, and a little later the sea lifted her and flung her, bow on, into the Otranto’s side.

The ponderous blow, delivered directly amidships, cut a wide gash in the cruiser from port rail to waterline, …

Through heroic effort, the British destroyer HMS Mounsey was able to come along side and take aboard some 600 men from the decks of the mortally wounded Otranto. Dangerously overburdened with her human cargo,  Mounsey made quickly for the port at Belfast, Ireland. With her signal equipment damaged in the daring ship-to-ship rescue, no word of the disaster could be sent ahead to the authorities at Belfast.

Thus it was that the Mounsey brought in the first news of the disaster and its token in the wretched men crowded upon her decks. And only a few leagues away to the North, their own great ship, the troop-transport Otranto, with nearly five hundred of their comrades left helpless aboard her, had been beaten to pieces on a reef of the Scottish Coast.


The survivors, several of them badly injured, and one, a sailor of the Otranto, so hurt that he died a few minutes after rescue, had been dashed upon the rocks beneath Kilchoman, a tiny cliff hamlet on the wildest part of Islay’s western coast. There the neighboring shepherds and the farmer-folk, clustered on the headland to watch the transport’s slow destruction, had gone bravely into the crashing surf and dragged the men to safety.


It is quite impossible to say too much of the humanity of all these peasant people, of their readiness to accept any hardship in the name of mercy, of the gentle, steadfast nursing they gave the soldiers, virtually bringing them back to life.

The Passing Legions: How the American Red Cross Met the American Army in Great Britain, the Gateway to France

The Passing Legions: How the American Red Cross Met the American Army in Great Britain, the Gateway to France
By George Buchanan Fife. Click image to read full text online.

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