While on vacation on Hatteras Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, this Yank stopped to pay his respects to two British sailors who found their final resting place far from the shores of Britain. During World War II, this stretch of the Eastern Seaboard of the US was known as “Torpedo Junction” and saw much action as German U-boats prowled offshore for tankers and other merchant ships carrying vital supplies to the UK.
In the dead of night on April 10, 1942 one such clash occurred when U-203, skippered by Kptlt. Rolf Mützelburg, encountered the British Motor Tanker San Delfino off Cape Hatteras. San Delfino was on her way from Houston, Texas and bound for the UK when U-203 found her. The U-boat hit her with one torpedo, then followed-up with a spread that missed. For the next hour she stalked the British tanker before she was finally able to sink her with a single torpedo. Of the crew of fifty seven, twenty four were lost that night. Among them was Fourth Engineer Officer Michael Cairns of the Royal Merchant Navy. The sea kept him for nearly a month before his remains washed ashore near the Hatteras lighthouse. Like the other British seaman who perished off the coast, he was buried with all the honors and respect he had earned.
As I stood at his grave, I thought about what those last hours must been like for Mr. Cairns and his fellow crewmates. After that first attack, they had to have realized that somewhere in the dark a submarine was hunting them down. An hour is a long time when your life is hanging in the balance. Did they even see the wakes from torpedoes before they exploded against the ship, giving them a few seconds to prepare for what was about to happen? Was Mr. Cairns at his station in the engine room when San Delfino went down? Was that why he didn’t make it out?
BMT San Delfino
Hailing from Dundee, Scotland, Cairns was just 28 when he died that morning seventy-four years ago. I’m almost twice the age he was when he died, and I brought my 11-year-old daughter with me to visit his grave, to show her that war isn’t just something you read about in a book. When I think of the soldiers, sailors and marines who gave their lives for their countries, I’m forcefully reminded that it is their sacrifices that allowed me to enjoy a full life and see my children grow, while their lives were cut so short.
There are other British sailors interred here in the Outer Banks. On nearby Ocracoke Island, there is a cemetery that holds the remains of four British seaman who served and died on HMS Bedfordshire. She was a Royal Navy ship jointly crewed by British and Canadian sailors, and one of the patrol vessels thrown into action along the US coast when the U.S. Navy proved to be woefully unprepared to counter the U-boat threat off its shores. Bedfordshire was destroyed by U-522 the month after San Delfino met her fate.
Perhaps most hauntingly, next to Michael Cairns rests a sailor whose identity is unknown to this day. His remains washed ashore a month after Officer Cairns was found. I would like to think that it would give Mr. Cairns and those other men who found their final rest so far from home some measure of comfort to know that their graves are cared for with so much respect and devotion. Every year near the anniversary of Bedfordshire’s sinking, members of the U.S. National Park Service, U.S. Coast Guard, and British Royal Navy join with local citizens to honor these men. Officers place wreaths at the graves and local citizens read the names of the dead. The sounding of “Taps” and a 21-gun salute conclude the memorial services every year.