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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Otranto Doctor Writes of Ship’s Final Hours

Otranto Doctor Writes of Ship’s Final Hours

In November, 1918, a few weeks after the  Otranto disaster in the closing months of WWI, survivor Dr. Charles A. Dixon, a Captain of the U.S. Medical Corps from Akron, OH, wrote a letter home to his wife describing the voyage of the ill-fated vessel.

Dr. Dixon’s harrowing escape from the doomed Otranto mirrors that of Berrien county men James Marvin DeLoach,  James Grady Wright, Henry Elmo DeLaney,  and Ange Wetherington.  Early Steward of Nashville, GA was among the very few who went into the sea and survived the swim to the rocky coast of Islay.   Almost two dozen Berrien County men  were among the hundreds of soldiers who perished in the sinking, including  Ralph Knight and Shellie Webb, of Ray City, GA.

 

Dr. Charles A. Dixon sailed on the ill-fated Otranto.

Dr. Charles A. Dixon sailed on the ill-fated Otranto.

     

In a daring rescue the H.M.S. Mounsey, pulled alongside the Otranto allowing men to jump from the sinking ship to  the deck of the  destroyer. The Mounsey carried the survivors to Belfast, Ireland where the American Red Cross was  waiting for their arrival.  Some of the rescued succumbed to exposure or mortal injuries and were buried in Belfast, Ireland.

Many, many bodies washed ashore on Islay, Scotland. Among the hundreds of Otranto dead  were Benjamin F. McCranieJim Melvin BoyettJohn Guy CoppageHiram Marcus BennettLafayett Gaskins,  William C. Zeigler and other men.  The lost Georgian soldiers were buried in mass graves  would later be honored in the Georgia WWI Memorial Book, (SEE Also Ray City, GA Veterans of World War I), and Berrien County, GA would commission the first monument to commemorate American soldiers killed in the Great War. and .

Dr. Charles A. Dixon  had boarded the Otranto at the Port of Embarkation at Hoboken, NJ with the Berrien County men and other replacement recruits from Fort Screven, Georgia.  The Embarkation Service reported the steamship Otranto had sailed for England from New York, NY on September 25, 1918 at 12:40 PM with 699 military passengers. The Otranto joined Convoy HX50 transporting troops across the Atlantic to the war in Europe. But on the trip over, the HMS Kashmir collided with the Otranto, resulting in the sinking of the latter.  Charles Vogt’s harrowing story was published February 3, 1919 in the Allentown Morning Call:

 

Akron Beacon Journal
November 30, 1918

Dr. C. A. Dixon, Akron Physician Writes
Detailed Story of Sinking of H.M.S. Otranto
Off Irish Coast

         Dr. Charles A. Dixon, Akron captain of the United States Medical Corps, one of the hundreds who passed through the thrills and dangers of the sinking on Oct. 6 of the British naval vessel Otranto as a result of a collision at sea with the Kashmir, another vessel of the same convoy party, has written a long letter to his wife, residing at 143 Lods St., in which he gives some of the intimate details of the disaster from which he escaped so fortunately.
        Opening his letter with an account of the early days of the trip, during which he was very busy with an outbreak on board of the flu, he comes down to the morning of the disaster. He continues:

        “I had breakfast at 8:30 and I guess because it was Sunday, I didn’t go right into C hold as I usually did, but went up on B deck, in the officers smoking room, and was smoking a cigar and talking to the naval paymaster, when one of our army lieutenants ran from port deck into the smoking room door and yelled for us to “look out,” and sprinted away.
        “We ran to the smoking room door, which was open, and through which we could see outside on B deck, and there about a hundred yards away was the Kashmir (next boat on our port side) headed straight toward us, and looked as if it was going to hit right where we stood. The paymaster let out a yell and ran to to the starboard side deck and grabbed a stanchion, me following a close second. The crash came a moment later and did not seem to jar us greatly; in fact, so little that I sort of smiled at the way we ran.
       Then I walked around to the port side and met one of the ship’s crew who told me how badly we were damaged. It had cut us from B deck clear down to the water line, about 30 feet, anywhere from ten to 20 feet wide. Cut right into the after boiler room in such a way that the boilers were out of commission inside of ten minutes. Those who were in the stoke hold were either killed or drowned. One of our soldiers had his right foot mashed clear off at the ankle, and three non-commissioned officers in a state room were all killed. In ten minutes all lights were out, but I had rushed to my stateroom, secured my overseas orders and my life belt and got back to B deck. (My stateroom was down on D deck).
         “I then gave the soldier with the smashed foot a hypodermic and first dressing. (I forgot to say that before the collision we sighted land off starboard bow; we thought it was Tory Island on the northeast coast of Ireland.) By this time the ship had lost steerage and was wallowing in the trough of those mountain high billows. The deck was such a slant that we could not walk, except as we hung on. At the time of the collision our captain signaled the convoy to move on, as per rules of convoys. The Kashmir, with her bow all stove in, had drifted out of sight.
         The weather was so thick that we could not see very far, but it was estimated that we were six miles off shore when in collision and now we were only two miles from shore. (It sure was a rocky one.)
         The sea was so rough that it was impossible for a boat to live in it or to even launch one.  One roll of the the ship and our starboard deck at ‘B would be about ten feet from the sea, and when she rolled the other way, it was at least 50 feet. At 10:20 (the collision was about 9:20) we saw a little torpedo boat destroyer off port side, and the first leftenant came to the smoking room window and called out, “Abandon ship, every man to his boat or raft station.
          “I never hated to do anything so badly in my life as to go to C deck for my boat position (Boat No. 5) for I knew we never could launch them in that awful sea, but I thought we were all bound to swim anyhow, so went. When we got to our stations we were ordered to get out of our overcoats and take off our shoes, which we did. By that time, the crew were lowering boats on A deck and by the time they were down even with B deck they would swing out 15 feet or more when our side rolled down.  Then I saw the torpedo boat coming up on the starboard side, about 150 feet away.
         And then I thought we were to jump into the sea and she would try to throw the line out and haul us on board, but no, that daredevil of a commander had signaled to us to lower life boats to act as a buffer and he came right up to us and yelled for us to jump. Life boats were splintered like egg shells, but saved the torpedo boat’s side as she bumped. Well believe me we jumped as we got the chance. Sometimes way up forward of me then perhaps way back aft, for you must know every time she bumped, the impact with the high seas would throw the two vessels apart, and then he would either reverse his engines or go ahead and steer her back against us.
         “About the fourth time we bumped together it was favorable to our position and I had an easy leap for life. But while I was waiting for my chance I saw many leap too late or too early – either fall into the sea between the two vessels and later be crushed, or dash themselves on a rising deck from such a distance they were killed or maimed. Then again after reaching the deck of the Moundsy [HMS Mounsey], every sea was washing clear over her and many were washed off her decks into the sea and lost that way.
         After reaching the Moundsy deck, I passed aft on Starboard side, hanging on with others to anything stable enough to be safe and was repeatedly submerged by waves that would have washed me overboard had I not hung on like grim death. Our position became so crowded that we were finally shown the way into the inside of the destroyer. Manholes about the size of a sewer opening were raised up and they crowded us down into these holes as thick as we could stand, in our compartment in an engine room that seemed to be some kind of an auxiliary, anyhow, neither the boilers or engine were working, but the seas when they broke overhead would run streams down over us after taking up grease or oil from the pipes until we were sights to behold. “But it was warmer than above decks and we fared infinitely better than those on the decks who were not only wet to the skin like ourselves, but were being submerged regularly and exposed to the cold gale. Of
course, after going below we knew nothing of what went on above, but they told us that she stood by until the poor old Otranto bit the reefs and then staggered away, loaded far past the limits of safety, trying to make three different havens, but on account of the high seas could not do so and finally brought us clear to Belfast, about 140 miles distance. We landed there soon after 8 o’clock in the evening about nine hours after taking us off. The Moundsy was in command of Lieutenant Craven who is a perfect daredevil.
       “The rescue is one of the most thrilling known to the marine world and what makes it more remarkable is the fact
that our commander (Captain Davidson, who went down with his ship), ordered him not to attempt the rescue as he considered it would only mean the foundering of the Moundsy, which, by the way, was badly damaged and had to go into dry docks for repairs. Her plates were only three-eights inch steel and were loosened up so that it took three pumps all the time to keep her from filling up. Three hundred and ten soldiers and officers and about 200 of the crew were rescued, making a loss of life of a little over 600.
        “The storm held with unabating fury until Tuesday, and when boats were able to land on Isley (pronounced Iley) off the coast of Scotland they found the natives had rescued but 20 alive (17 soldiers and three sailors.) They say the Otranto had all broken up and disappeared by Monday morning, and the shore covered with wreckage 20 feet high. About 200 dead bodies were recovered, the rest were carried to sea by the tides which run very swiftly between Scotland and Ireland.
          “I lost everything, even my shoes, but have no regrets as I consider that I am indeed very lucky to be alive to enjoy the damnable weather which prevails here. I had my money belt on and so am able to buy things as I need them, except uniform, I am still wearing that greasy and dirty. When I am relieved, will no doubt be allowed to re-equip in either Liverpool or London. At each place we have quartermaster stores, and then I can draw my pay which I still have coming for September.
          “Everybody is mighty nice to me here and in a way will be sorry to leave Belfast (which by the frequency of the name leads me to suspect, must be the home of my ancestors), but I am anxious to get on to France before our victorious armies have the boches all killed or captured.
             “I did not even take a cold from my exposure, lost all my remedies and my dear little high potency case, so have not taken a dose of any kind of medicine since the collision. Never felt better in my life and now after all I have been through I do not believe I will have any more bad luck.
           “The ‘subs’ got the Irish mail steamer between Dublin and Kingstown a week ago today with a large loss of life, mostly due to high seas though, and I find that the popular idea at home that our convoys have all come through unscathed is all bunk. They have been getting some right along but no serious losses yet. War news makes very good reading these days and maybe we are licking them but I cannot believe the war is anywhere near over.
          “This letter started last night has run over into another day. It is now Saturday morning and I have to be chief mourner for another funeral which I think will be our last one as the rest are doing nicely. This makes 20 burials here (one a captain of artillery from Nebraska) and each one makes a three mile march at slow time to the cemetery.
          “I might say here that the steamer Kashmir, who rammed us, finally made port at Glascow and she was very bad with pneumonia; had signalled us Sunday morning before the collision that she had six dead on board and I hear she buried about 50 in Glascow. We think the accident was due to her having some sort of trouble with her steering gear, but I do not know.
        “But I must close and get this down to the city to the man who says he will carry it across to you.”

 

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