In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.
– José Narosky
A story for today.
A few weeks before the fighting stopped in World War I, a troop ship carrying American soldiers – many from Augusta – sank after colliding with another ship off the coast of Scotland.
The October 1918 disaster was big news, played out for days on the front pages of The Augusta Chronicle. Eventually, however, all went back to their lives, and most forgot about the men who died aboard the HMS Otranto.
Except for John Jahera, of Auburn, Ala. He wrote me a few years ago and asked if I’d ever heard the story, because his great-uncle Ernest Nelson Gay, of Augusta, was one of the casualties.
I went looking into the old archives and found it – “Augusta Boys on Transport Sunk in North Channel” – a story of men and war and the accidents of both, made all the more poignant because it happened near the fighting’s end.
“From what I can find,” Jahera wrote, “most if not all of the bodies were recovered but it was 1920 before they were returned to Augusta. I recall my mother telling me that as a young girl she went with her father to the train station to recover her uncle’s remains. He (Ernest Nelson Gay) was then buried in Iron Hill Cemetery in Dearing.”
The shipwreck tragedy stayed with those involved. One was Joseph Hewells, a World War I veteran who kept a journal of his wartime experiences. Here is how he described it: “… All of a sudden there was a terrific jar and the ship trembled all over … in about 15 to 20 minutes word came down to us to get up on deck immediately.
“When we came out on deck the wind was blowing at the rate of 70 to 75 miles an hour, probably more or less, but a fellow would have to hold to ropes or something to keep from being blown overboard. The ship had been struck by another ship of the convoy, ‘The Kasmir’ ... ripping a terrible hole in the side …”
Hewells and others would eventually end up in the ocean.
“We left about 450 to 500 soldiers and 200 sailors on board out of which only 18 managed to reach the shore alive,” he wrote. “One of these 18 was a fellow out of the same company as I and he said that everybody stuck to the ship as long as they could and then they began jumping overboard to try to make it ashore which was only a 1½ to 2 miles off.”
Survivors were transferred from Ireland to England, to a “rest camp” in Winchester.
“While there,” Hewells wrote in his journal, “the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.”
We still remember that date.
Each year it marks our Veterans Day, and each year we remember those who faced battles and bullets. But some who served their country did not perish at an enemy’s hand. Their sacrifice is no less important.