DEATH IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC
The Loss of H.M.S. Otranto
The war would be over in five weeks. It was supposed to be the war to end all wars. It wasn't. Despite the fact that the end of the war was near, the United States government was still shipping men and material to the European front in the early Fall of 1918. One transport ship, His Majesty's Ship Otranto, never made it to her destination. Her final destination was the ocean floor off the coast of Scotland. Resting at the bottom of the ocean with her were the bodies of a dozen Emanuel County men, who lost their lives when she went down in a terrible storm.
The Otranto first saw service as a mail ship on a route between Liverpool, England and Australia. The British government refitted the ship into an armored cruiser. She saw her first action off the coast of Chili against a German squadron, which sunk two of the four British cruisers. The Otranto, under the command of Captain Davidson, was the flagship of a group of transport ships assigned to ferry American soldiers from Hoboken, New Jersey to the war in Europe.
On board the Otranto were seven hundred American soldiers. A majority of the men had just completed their training in coastal artillery tactics at Fort Screven on Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia. Most of the men engaged in the coastal artillery training were Georgians. Shortly after the Otranto departed for Europe on September 25, 1918, a French transport, the La France, left the convoy. About a week later on the night of October 1st, the Otranto crashed into the French ship, "The Croisine." The Otranto survived the collision and proceeded on her easterly course.
On October 6, 1918, as the convoy was approaching the straight between Ireland and Scotland, a command was issued to form the ships in a single file - a difficult maneuver considering the raging storm which was tossing the ships about. The Otranto took the eleventh place in line, just ahead of "The Kashmir," which was formerly a luxury liner. The Otranto's commander ordered the commander of "The Kashmir" to swing ahead of the Otranto, which would anchor the rear of the column to take advantage of her armament. The Kashmir's commander moved his ship around, but lost control of her when a high wave forced the ship out of control. The bow of the Kashmir struck the side of the Otranto just below the water line. Many of the upper structures of the Otranto were smashed. Captain Davidson ordered the men to their stations to await further orders. The high seas made the use of lifeboats impractical. The Kashmir, operating under standard operational procedures, continued along her course. Navy policy makers feared that a ship trying to rescue another damaged ship was a "sitting duck" for German submarines, which had sunk another American ship in the same area earlier in the year.
The men of the Otranto remained calm. They knew their imminent fate. The ship was flooding. There were no life rafts. The seas were too high. The engine rooms flooded first, knocking out any hope of radio calls for help. The midmorning skies were dark. The rain was relentless. Hopes for survival were failing by the minute. Two hours after the collision, the British destroyer, the Mounsey, which was supposed to have met the convoy earlier but had also been delayed by the rough waters, reached the Otranto. Lt. Craven, the commander of the Mounsey, soon realized that the conventional rescue methods were hopeless. Lt. Craven ordered his semaphore man to signal the Otranto to lower her lifeboats half way with the ends pointing down. Craven believed that he could bring his ship along the side of the sinking Otranto and the lifeboats would act as cushions. The Mounsey made four runs along the side of the Otranto. Those who could, leaped from the deck of the Ontranto onto the deck of the Mounsey. The Mounsey suffered serious damage on each rescue attempt. The radio, the bridge, and the all-important compass was destroyed. Three hundred and ten Americans, two hundred thirty-seven of the British crew of the Otranto, and thirty French sailors, a total of five hundred and seventy-seven men, made it safely to the Mounsey, which was designed to hold only seventy men. Lt. Craven decided that any further attempts to rescue men on the ship would be perilous. In fear of any further damage to his ship, he ordered the helmsman to turn the ship toward Belfast, Ireland, where it arrived fourteen hours later.
Shortly after the Mounsey departed, the Otranto sunk. A few lucky men who were left behind made it to the coast of the Isle of Islay, Scotland. One hundred and seventy five dead bodies were washed ashore in the first few hours. The bodies were buried in temporary graves on the island along the side of the victims of the Tuscania. Nearly all of the bodies were re-interred in the United States or in Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey, England. The sinking of the Otranto was one of the largest maritime disasters of World War II. Four hundred thirty-one lives were lost. Three hundred sixty-nine of them were Americans. Of those, one hundred forty were native or adopted Georgians who trained at Fort Screven.
Most of the men who lost their lives were from eastern Georgia counties of Emanuel, Screven, Bulloch, Chatam, Richmond, Ware, and Burke, along with Berrien County of southwest Georgia. The people of Emanuel County suffered the heart breaking loss of a dozen men. They were Private Henry Allen, Private Ellie Broom, Private Mandle Collins, Private Hicks Durden, Private Carlton M. Hooks, Private Lester Hutchinson, Private James E. McNeely, Private Elisha T. Moseley, Private Neil Phillips, Private Will Roberts, Private Clifton Stewart, and Private Joe Williams. Privates John F. Roach of Wilkinson County and Lonnie Steptoe of Johnson County were also listed among the dead.
It took ten days for the news to reach Swainsboro. At first, only Carlton Hooks was reported lost at sea. Then the dreaded news came. One by one names were added to the list. There were other Emanuel County men aboard. Their parents and families worried about their fate. Sons of D.J. Edingfield and James M. Brown were reported to have been among those on board the Otranto, but thankfully did not appear on the casualty list.
A letter arrived at the home of James Albert Bishop of Summertown just as the war ended on November 11th, 1918. Bishop's letter to his mother gave clues to the horror of what was described by some as the worst shipwreck of the war. Bishop reported that there were movie cameras filming the rescue scenes. He saw men being crushed by lifeboats and wreckage on the ship. Bishop told his mother that he just lashed himself to the ship and prayed. "I was ready to die, but the good Lord saved me," Bishop said.
The end of the "War to end all wars" was never enjoyed as much as it should have been in Emanuel County. Death is never a joy.