October 10, 2015
A memorial service in Nashville, Ga. honored the many Berrien County men who lost their lives in the sinking of the U.S. troop ship the Otranto off the coast of Ireland and Scotland in September 1918. Of 60 Berrien County soldiers lost in World War I, 28 died in that one tragedy. Georgia World War I Centennial Commission Executive Director Tom Jackson was among the speakers at the program in Nashville.
A troopship, crammed with more than a thousand men, suffered a catastrophic collision off the storm-lashed coast of the Scottish Hebrides. This is the story of the tragic Otranto, the 470 American soldiers and British sailors who were lost on her, and of how hundreds of others were snatched from the jaws of death.
The end of the Great War was just weeks away when former P&O luxury liner, the Otranto, crossed the Atlantic, laden with young American soldiers. Just a few months before, she had made the same trip with Private Buster Keaton on board. To defy German submarines, the Otranto sailed in a convoy, protected by a ring of British warships.
But, appalling weather prevented accurate navigation and the convoy was forced to rely on dead reckoning. When dawn broke, on the 6th of October 1918, a treacherous rocky coast was sighted. Most ships correctly identified it as Scotland, but not the Otranto. Her officers thought they were off Ireland. The Otranto turned north – and another troopship, the Kashmir, sliced into her, breaking her back.
An extraordinary rescue mission ensued. British destroyer HMS Mounsey saved 596 men but 489 were left behind. Only 21 men – 17 of them Americans – managed to swim to the coast of the island of Islay, where they were dragged from the sea by islanders – mostly boys and old men not called-up to the army.
But it was mostly bodies that the Islay people dragged ashore ( https://raycityhistory.wordpress.com/2010/10/13/october-13-1918-recovering-corpses-from-otranto-wreck/ ) . The following morning the coast was strewn with scores of them. In a remarkable display of public sympathy, local people scoured beaches, and men roped themselves together to climb down cliffs to retrieve bodies.
Kilchoman Church became a morgue. 100 bodies were stretched out on the pews. When the church got full, they laid another 100 of the dead outside among the gravestones. The islanders buried these dead strangers in a moving and dignified ceremony ( https://raycityhistory.wordpress.com/2010/10/15/burial-of-the-otranto-victims/ ) .
In America, the sense of shock was palpable. The New York Times, broke the story ( https://raycityhistory.wordpress.com/2010/10/11/otranto-sunk-in-collision/ ) in page ( https://raycityhistory.wordpress.com/2010/10/12/oct-12-1918-372-u-s-soldiers-lost-in-sinking-of-otranto/ ) after page of horrific detail ( https://raycityhistory.wordpress.com/2010/10/13/october-13-1918-recovering-corpses-from-otranto-wreck/ ) . Nowhere was the shock more profoundly felt than Berrien County, Georgia. A disproportionate number of men came from the area, and of the 60 names carved on Nashville, GA’s war memorial ( https://raycityhistory.wordpress.com/2014/10/11/let-us-unveil/ ) , 28 are those of Otranto victims.
For intricate details, see Many Were Held by the Sea: The Tragic Sinking of the HMS Otranto, by R. Neil Scott, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012, 288 pp., available on Amazon).