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Islanders made sure dead soldiers received proper burial in 1918

November 15, 2018

This week we celebrated Veterans Day. It’s exactly 100 years since the guns on the Western Front in Europe fell silent after four years of war. Last week I talked about a remarkable woman, Flora Sandes, the only British woman to serve on the front line, and this week I want to bring you another story from the same era. It’s the story of an island and of a flag, an American flag.

The story centers around Islay, a small island that is part of the Inner Hebrides group off the west coast of Scotland, but the tale begins far away across the Atlantic.

America entered World War 1 in early April 1917, and by the start of 1918 U.S. troops were pouring into the European Theatre. On Jan. 24 of that year, just over 2,000 of them left Hoboken, New Jersey, on a converted passenger liner, H.M.S. Tuscania.

The ship joined a convoy and for the next 12 days battled the stormy North Atlantic until, on Feb. 5, she turned south for the channel leading to the British city of Liverpool. She was almost safely in port but unknown to her crew the convoy had been spotted by a German submarine, UB-77.

The U boat stalked the convoy all day and then, in the early evening, she fired two torpedoes at Tuscania. One struck the ship and she immediately began to fill with water. Fortunately she took over four hours to sink beneath the waves and two British destroyers, H.M.S. Mosquito and H.M.S. Pigeon, came alongside to take off many of the soldiers and the crew.

Despite their efforts some 300 others either went down with the ship or drifted away on lifeboats and rafts to wash up on the rocky cliffs of Islay’s southwestern shore.

It wasn’t an easy landing; 140 men were rescued from the waves, mainly by women, children and old people because every able-bodied male in the island’s 5,000 population was away, serving in the forces. Despite their efforts over 180 soldiers and sailors died and their bodies were washed ashore over the next few days.

Dealing with this sudden influx of dead wasn’t easy. In those days the island’s population was almost entirely composed of fishermen and farmers. There was no electricity, no phones and the only way of getting around was on dirt tracks because there were no proper roads.

The local police sergeant, Malcolm MacNeill, carefully documented each of the bodies in a notebook as they were brought in to a temporary morgue and the people used scarce supplies to build coffins, prepared the dead for burial and dug four large, new burial grounds.

Only one thing was missing. These were soldiers, casualties of war, and they deserved the honors those that have fallen usually get. But there was no flag to fly over the Americans as each was laid to rest. The island’s women got together, borrowed an encyclopedia to see what the flag looked like, gathered scraps of material and, working by candlelight, they stitched together an American flag by hand.

The funerals took four days and each coffin was reverently carried to its resting place by survivors of the sinking. They went in a procession, preceded by bagpipers playing a lament, and with the Union flag and the Stars and Stripes flying over them.

The islanders’ actions attracted attention and, in May of 1918, an American reporter was on Islay to record the story. The hand-sewn American flag was given to him with a request that he ensured it was delivered to President Woodrow Wilson so that he could have it put into a museum where the American people could see it and remember what had happened.

The flag went to the Smithsonian and the people of Islay settled back into their spartan existence, but the war, and American soldiers, were not quite done with them.

At the end of September, little more than a month before the war ended, H.M.S. Otranto left New York loaded with nearly 2,000 troops from Georgia. The crossing of the Atlantic was horrendous; there were constant storms, seasickness and the beginnings of an epidemic of Spanish flu.

On Oct. 6 the ship was off Islay, trying to ride out a huge storm with mountainous waves. The vessel was almost uncontrollable and, driven by the wind and waves, it collided with another troop ship, the S.S. Kashmir.

Otranto was badly damaged and sinking but, despite the danger, a Royal Navy destroyer, H.M.S. Mounsey, maneuvered alongside to allow survivors to jump across to her.

The destroyer stayed as long as possible until, with her decks packed to capacity by soldiers and the Otranto going down fast, she had to move away. Nearly 500 men went into the sea and only 21 managed to swim ashore on Islay. Their drowned comrades followed them and once again the islanders were faced with a huge number of dead washed up on their shores, 470 of them, in fact. Once more Sgt. MacNeill recorded their details, and again they were laid to rest with proper ceremony.

The war ended five weeks later and the islanders’ flag was displayed in the Smithsonian for more than 10 years, but it was then put into storage, where it remained until 2017. That was when Islay’s own museum decided to hold a 100th anniversary commemoration. The Smithsonian readily agreed to loan the flag back to the island for display for six months, a loan that has now been extended to two years.

On Oct. 6 of this year, the commemoration service was held. Descendants of the American troops who were saved attended, as did Anne, the princess royal, the U.S. ambassador and Lord George Robertson, former United Kingdom Defense Minister and grandson of MacNeill. Once again there were prayers, bagpipes and a homemade flag, this one a replica of the original one. It is now in a museum in Edinburgh and a second copy was presented, at his request, to Woody Johnson, the U.S. Ambassador to London.

There is only one American still buried on the island. The rest were disinterred and repatriated after the war, but the islanders still remember. They remember not only the brave American boys who washed up on their shore, but also the 200 of their own men who went away to fight for freedom and didn’t return.

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