By Connie Leinbach
Long gone voices from Ocracoke’s past will be heard describing life here during World War II in a special presentation by North Carolina historian Kevin Duffus at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 11in the Ocracoke Community Center.
Duffus’s talk, “War Zone: When World War II Was Fought off Ocracoke’s Beaches,” will be part of the 80th British Cemetery Ceremony remembering the sinking of HMT Bedfordshire, a British trawler, off the North Carolina coast on May 11, 1942.
Following that sinking, the bodies of four British sailors washed up on Ocracoke. They are interred in the British Cemetery, a small patch of England, along British Cemetery Road.
The community will remember their sacrifice and that of many others at a ceremony at 11 a.m. Friday, May 13.
Duffus, an award-winning filmmaker and historian, will give a multi-media presentation from the perspective of Ocracoke islanders whom he filmed from 1997 to 2002 and from which he created a three-hour television documentary that focused on the first six months of 1942 when German U-boats waged unrestricted warfare on Allied merchant and military vessels off the Outer Banks.
All of the interviewees, who have since passed, will be familiar to many. Among them will be Blanche Howard Jolliff, Calvin O’Neal, Ulysses Mac Womac, Owen Gaskill, Blanche Styron and Theodore Mutro.
In 2012, Duffus expanded his research and oral histories in greater detail with a 300-page book of the same title, available at Books to Be Red.
Although Duffus has presented the “War Zone” lecture many times across the state, on Ocracoke, for the first time, he will combine the lecture, the filmed interviews and photos in one presentation.
“I’ve done hundreds of hundreds of lectures on various topics, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited about the opportunity to present a lecture as I am for this event on May 11,” he said in an interview . “It’s made me realize how significant World War II was to the development of Ocracoke and the change from the pre-war years, when life was very innocent on the island, to the post-war years when Ocracoke had become part of the world and experienced this incredible tragedy that occurred right off its beaches.”
From those interviewed, attendees will hear how the war altered islander life.
“You’ll hear Blanche Jolliff talking about how they were prohibited from going out to the beach for a good part of the war,” he said.
That’s because the government thought that Germans might try to land, he said.
“That was the fear, but it’s hard to imagine what it was like,” he said. “Every day, there was debris, and bodies and oil coming ashore.”
Duffus interviewed Arnold Tolson, who found Sub-Lt. Thomas Cunningham’s body, and described what happened afterward.
And Duffus said he has a surprising video clip that nobody’s ever seen but which is sure to be emotional.
Cunningham and Ordinary Telegraphist Second Class Stanley Craig were the only ones identified of the four sailors interred here.
The Ocracoke community, the US Coast Guard, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and the Friends of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum have worked together to care for the gravesites and honor these British sailors each year since 1942.
All are welcome to attend the graveside ceremony and reception that follows on the grounds of the Ocracoke Preservation Society (OPS) Museum. In case of rain, the reception will be in the Ocracoke Community Center.
Representatives from the British Royal Navy and Royal Canadian Navy will attend, as will members of the US Coast Guard and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Ocracoke School Seniors Julian Bennink and Jackson Strange will read the names of the fallen, and Edwin Perez-Benitez and Savannah Hodson will hand out programs.
Howard Bennink will play “The Last Post” on the trumpet.
The OPS, which conducts the ceremony, welcomes donations from the public to help cover the costs of the event and is seeking volunteers for the reception. To help, contact Sundae Horn at 252-921-0283 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The commemoration is sponsored by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Ocracoke Occupancy Tax Board, and the Ocracoke Preservation Society, a community-based nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of Ocracoke Island’s historical and cultural heritage.