After the tragic accidental sinking of HMS Otranto in October 1918, the bodies of young Americans washed ashore on the Isle of Islay in Scotland, and deep sadness crossed the Atlantic to families in Bulloch and Screven counties and across Georgia.
It happened in the final two months of World War I. Most of the 701 American men on the ship were soldiers freshly trained for war, but what befell the Otranto was not a direct result of combat. Brent Tharp, Ph.D., director of the Georgia Southern Museum, brought the sense of loss forward to 2023 during the Bulloch County Historical Society’s most recent meeting, Sept. 25, basing his presentation in research by another active member of the society, Rodney Harville.
“On October 6, 1918, the British troop ship HMS Otranto, in the midst of a hurricane-strength storm, was struck by another troop ship, the HMS Kashmir,” Tharp said. “When the Otranto eventually wrecked upon the reefs and shores of the Scottish island of Islay, 470 men had died, including 358 American soldiers, over 130 of whom were Georgians traveling from Fort Screven.”
One of Tharp’s first slides displayed photographs of four young men who lived in Bulloch County well over a century ago. Ominously, he placed them not in 1918, but nine years earlier, in 1909, the year the SS Otranto, born as a passenger steamship serving the Orient Line’s route between England and Australia, was launched from a British shipyard.
Four farm boys
“In 1909, four young men in Bulloch County were farm laborers, working cotton fields and melon patches,” Tharp said. “The adventures of a war and the sea were probably something they had never imagined.”
The oldest, Carswell Deal, 18, was living in Briar Patch and was one of the 10 children of Allison and Julia Deal of Arcola. John M. Sheffield, 17, was living in the Bay area with his parents, James and Mary Ann Sheffield, and his five brothers and sisters. James Warren Williams, 16, had been born in Sylvania, but in 1909 he lived in Brooklet with his parents, Alex and Margaret Williams, and his sister. Brooks Beasley, youngest of the four, was 13 and living in Lockhart. He worked the farm with his five younger brothers and sisters, the family of Joe and Ida Beasley, Tharp narrated.
Soon, of no interest to those four young men, the SS Otranto was awarded a contract to also carry the mail, becoming a Royal Mail Ship, RMS Otranto.
After the Great War, known to later generations as World War I, began in Europe in 1914, its ripples were slow to reach Bulloch County, Tharp said.
When Great Britain declared war on Germany that August, the Otranto was requisitioned by the British Admiralty to be an armed merchant cruiser, His Majesty’s Ship Otranto.
“Her elegant woodwork was entirely stripped, the lounges were taken out, and her colors were painted over to gray to hide her in the ocean,” Tharp said.
The ship was fitted with eight 4.7-inch guns and a rangefinder, and half-inch steel plating was added wherever it would fit. After escaping significant damage in a couple of major battles in the South Atlantic, the Otranto was overhauled in February 1915 and upgraded with six-inch guns.
When the United States at last joined the war in 1917, HMS Otranto was assigned to serve as a troop transport. It shuttled American soldiers on three voyages between New York and England, Tharp said.
“When the United States officially declared war on April 6, 1817, over 26,500 Georgia men volunteered for military service,” he said. “Another 68,820 were soon drafted, and 238 Georgia women volunteered for the Army Nurse Corps. The development of military bases in Georgia during World War I established it as a training hub for the entire U.S.”
One of those bases was Fort Screven on Tybee Island. Active 1897-1945, a number of its buildings are preserved today as a historic district near Tybee Lighthouse.
In World War I, Fort Screven “contained a significant coastal artillery station and training facility, and that is where our four young men from Bulloch County ended up in the summer of 1918 as part of the Automatic Replacement Draft Units, Number 1 and 2,” Tharp said.
Upon their departure from port on the Otranto, the men addressed “safely arrived” postcards, which were saved until the patrol reached England, then to be mailed to their families. The patrol convoy departed Sept. 25, with the Otranto as lead ship.
U-boats and flu
The greatest fears of soldiers and sailors on board, Tharp said, were German U-boats and influenza, with the great “flu” pandemic then raging.
At 9:30 p.m. Oct. 1, “soldiers felt a sudden jolt on the HMS Otranto as the ship momentarily lifted and then fell ahead,” he narrated. “They were certain that a German U-boat they had feared had found its target.”
But running without lights in the foggy night, the Otranto had accidentally rammed a French fishing schooner, the Croisine. The Otranto stopped and rescued 30 French sailors, but the fishing boat was too damaged to retrieve, so the Otranto’s guns were used to sink it.
Meanwhile, seasickness and flu were debilitating men living in close quarters within the Otranto and its companion troop ship, HMS Kashmir.
“The Otranto turned their dining room into a hospital, with over 100 severe cases, and the HMS Kashmir … had over 200,” he said.
The first man to die of influenza aboard the Otranto was a soldier from Quitman, Georgia, on Oct. 2. The second was a soldier from Screven County on Oct. 5.
By the night of Oct. 5, the patrol was sailing near the British Isles in a storm with 80-90 mph winds. When land and was sighted a little after 8 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 6, officers on the Kashmir correctly guessed that they were looking at west coast of Scotland, but those in charge on Otranto incorrectly took the land for the north coast of Ireland.
With the Kashmir steering south and the Otranto north, the ships were placed on a collision course. Around 8:45 two successive waves lifted the Kashmir and drove it twice into the midsection of the Otranto. The Kashmir’s bow protruded 20 feet into the Otranto’s boiler room, leaving a huge, triangular gash, Tharp retold.
Fortunately for some, the destroyer HMS Mounsey arrived, signaling on orders from its commander, Lt. Francis Craven, that it would pull alongside the Otranto and begin rescuing men. Otranto’s Capt. Ernest Davidson tried to warn the Mounsey away, certain that the other ship would be sunk in the process.
“But Captain Craven of the HMS Mounsey replied, ‘I am coming alongside. If we go down, we shall go down together,’” Tharp narrated.
As the ships rose and fell, men tried to jump from the deck of Otranto to that of the Munsey.
“Many survivors were haunted with visions of those who fell in-between or dropped into the water to drown or be crushed between the two ships as they were rolling back and forth together,” he said. “Other men holding onto the sides were washed from the deck by the heavy seas.”
But the Mounsey received 597 men, including at least 300 U.S. solders, from the crippled Otranto. After the war, Craven was awarded both the Navy Cross by the United States and the Distinguished Service Order by the United Kingdom for his actions that day, and members of his crew were also decorated.
Unfortunately, the Mounsey, filled to capacity, had to pull away at 11 a.m., leaving 489 men still aboard the Otranto, which had no power or ability to steer. More than three hours after the collision, the ship crashed onto Old Women’s Reef and broke apart on the rocky shore of Islay. Only 21 of those final 489 made it ashore alive.
Before holding the first funeral, the people of Islay spent five days retrieving bodies, which constantly washed up on the shore. Bodies were buried in mass graves, some but not all identifiable by dog tags or other evidence.
When the rest of the convoy arrived in port, “He arrived safely” cards were mailed out for all the ships, bringing tragic misinformation to soldiers’ families across Georgia. But “news reports and cable grams that began to arrive gave them the understanding and the truth of what had been happening,” Tharp said.
The U.S. government offered to pay the expense of recovering bodies from the mass graves and either sending them home, at families’ choice, or reburying them in the U.S. cemetery in Surrey, England.
Carswell Deal’s body was returned and buried in the Allison Deal Cemetery in Brooklet. James Warren Williams’ body was returned and buried in the Corinth Leefield Cemetery, and Brooks Beasley’s body was recovered and buried in the Beasley Cemetery. John M. Sheffield was removed from Islay and buried in the Brookwood American Cemetery in England.
Tharp displayed photos of their gravestones.
“Nearly every county in the state lost someone in Otranto disaster,” he had said. “Berrien County lost the most, with 28 men. The county of Screven was not far behind, though, with 21, and Bulloch County lost four young soldiers in the tragedy.”
Nashville, Georgia, seat of Berrien County, memorialized the county’s great loss by ordering a pressed copper statue of a World War I soldier, the first of the “Spirit of the American Doughboy” series created by artist E.M. Viquesney. Hundreds of these statues remain across the USA, and the iconic image was reproduced in other formats, Tharp noted.
The Bulloch County Historical Society’s interest in the disaster began when Harville, who has led in the organization’s work to identify and maintain historic cemeteries, saw an unusual word on a tall stone monument at the Deal Cemetery.
“This started because the Bulloch County Historical Society registered cemeteries – the last one we registered was the Deal Cemetery, and while we were recording it, it appeared there, “Otranto,” and I said, ‘What the heck is Otranto?’ So I came home and looked it up,” Harville recalled.