A tiny rectangle of British soil on a small North Carolina island
After Queen Elizabeth II’s death last week, the people of Ocracoke made a small but meaningful gesture.
Last week, after I heard about the death of Queen Elizabeth II, I thought about Ocracoke Island.
Space is at a premium on Ocracoke. So even a tiny rectangle of land measuring about 2,200 square feet—an area that’s smaller than most houses—is significant. One particular plot, however, is a bit of a black hole on Hyde County’s plat maps. It doesn’t seem to have an owner, and there’s only a tiny bit of information on the county’s online GIS system, which is designed to make it easy to tell you who owns property. There’s only one solid piece of information here: A large, all-caps note that reads “BRITISH CEMETERY.”
While precise property records might require a trip to the courthouse in Swan Quarter, there’s really no illusions about what this land is for, or who controls it. The flag of the Royal Navy flies over four basic gravestones. There’s a white fence surrounding it. This is the final resting place of four British sailors who died when their ship, the Bedfordshire, was torpedoed off of the North Carolina during World War II. According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the North Carolina State Property Office granted a perpetual lease for the site in 1976, “making it probably the smallest Commission cemetery in the world.” The U.S. Coast Guard maintains it, but this is a tiny bit of British soil on a small island off the North Carolina coast. So British, in fact, that there’s a portion of a poem from Rupert Brooke etched on a plaque nearby:
If I should die think only this of me that there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever England
The story of the Bedfordshire
In 1942, the United States had a very big U-boat problem. German submarines were prowling just off of the east coast, torpedoing American ships as they tried to make their way out to sea. For that reason, the British government agreed to lend two dozen antisubmarine corvettes to the Navy. One of them was the H.M.S. Bedfordshire, a former fishing trawler outfitted with guns.
That ship and the others made their way across the Atlantic to Newfoundland, then traveled down the coast. The Bedfordshire itself was based in Morehead City, and patrolled the coast from there up to Norfolk during April and May 1942, going back to its adopted home port from time to time to load up on coal.
At one point, in an unintended moment of foreshadowing, an American officer, Aycock Brown, came aboard to commandeer some British flags for the burial of sailors whose boat had been torpedoed off of Cape Hatteras. Sub Lieutenant Thomas Cunningham rounded up six.
Not long after that, the Bedfordshire went back out on patrol. On the night of May 12, 1942, the German U558 was cruising around between Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout, and its microphones picked up on the sound of the Bedfordshire’s engines. The boat, which hadn’t had much success in hunting Allied warships up to that point, surfaced and opened fire. The Bedfordshire sank quickly, and all of its 37 soldiers died. Not long after, two soldiers’ bodies washed up on Ocracoke. One of them was Cunningham’s. According to a 1988 News & Observer story:
There were no undertakers, ministers or public cemeteries on Ocracoke then, so a local family—the Williamses—donated a portion of their family plot for the two dead men. Two coffins were built from floating duck blinds, and the two men were laid to rest with a lay member of the Methodist church presiding. Coast Guardsmen provided military honors, and Aycock Brown provided the British flag, the very same flag that Cunningham had given him to honor some other British sailor's grave.
Soon after two other bodies washed up, and were also buried in the same plot. A fifth Bedforshire sailor was buried near the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
Taking Care Of A Tiny Space
For years, the villagers in Ocracoke took care of the tiny plot. In the 1970s, the British Royal Navy spruced it up. In 1976, the land was leased in perpetuity to the British government, but the U.S. Coast Guard maintains it now. Every year, the Ocracoke Preservation Society organizes a ceremony that includes British and American representatives to memorialize those four soldiers.
It’s a touching moment, but it’s not like there’s always been a closeness between Ocracoke and the English. After all, this was once a pirate hideout for guys like Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard (Fun fact: The Hyde County EMS logo featured Blackbeard’s flag, which wasn’t actually a flag that Blackbeard used). In 1813, the Royal Navy landed here in an attempt to get on to New Bern and take it over during the War of 1812. The Americans showed up and ran them off.
But since World War II, the British Cemetery has shown that a little kindness in a dark hour can go a long way. Last week, shortly after death of the queen, the people on Ocracoke made a small but meaningful gesture. Someone lowered the British flag to half-staff.
(Special thanks to the Ocracoke Observer and Leslie Lanier of Books to Be Red, a terrific independent bookstore on the island.)
BONUS: Queen Elizabeth saw the UNC Tar Heels play (and lose) a football game in 1957.
BONUS BONUS: I just wrote about how North Carolina’s shortest state highway was created to guide people to an old wooden ship named the Elizabeth II in Manteo. The Queen didn’t come to see it, but her daughter did.
Or, as said and written in UK English, the flag was at half mast. Sailing tradition and blah, blah.
What a touching story. When I worked in Fernandina Beach, FL, I was told by the woman who grew up at the Amelia Island Lighthouse about a book called "Operation Drumbeat" that recounted some of the stories of U-boat operations off the east coast during WWII. Great read.