Tom Cunningham considers it a great act of generosity that the people on the small island of Ocracoke would set aside a plot of land to bury his father and three other British sailors 70 years ago.
Sub-Lt. Thomas Cunningham was one of 37 crewmen aboard the HMS Bedfordshire when it was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of North Carolina on the night of May 11, 1942.
The Bedfordshire, a fishing trawler outfitted with guns and loaded with depth charges, was one of two dozen ships of its kind that the British navy loaned the United States in the early months of 1942, in an attempt to ward off the U-boats preying on tankers and freighters along the East Coast.
None of the Bedfordshire crew survived the sinking. Three days later, two bodies washed up on Ocracoke, followed by two more a week later. They were buried in that small plot now known as the British Cemetery.
Two of the men were identified, and two were not. All four were laid to rest on the island, and that spot of land was deeded to England after the war.
On Friday, as they do every year, the U.S. Coast Guard, the British and Canadian governments and the people of the Outer Banks will hold a ceremony at the cemetery to commemorate those four sailors and the others who were never found. And for just the second time, Sub-Lt. Cunningham’s son will be there.
“For 70 years, give or take, the American people have been putting themselves through a great deal of trouble to commemorate those British seamen who died during the war,” Cunningham said by phone from his home near Liverpool. “It’s their way of saying thank you to us, and [coming to Ocracoke] is my way of acknowledging their thanks.”