Remembering One of the Forgotten
While his biography is currently featured in my exhibit These Truly Were the Brave, the story of Private Ora Leland McCoy of El Monte, California can also be told here in observance of Memorial Day.
The German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare was one of the driving forces behind America’s entry into World War One. The Germans had declared the sea lanes around the British Isles a war zone and any ships – even those of neutral nations – were subject to attack and sinking without warning. The torpedoing of the great Cunard liner RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915, took 128 American lives and help set the U.S. on a course towards war with Germany and her Central Powers allies. The lurking, unseen menace of the German U-boats would figure quite tragically in the wartime experiences of Ora Leland McCoy.
Born on January 23, 1888, at Fall River Mills, Shasta County, California, Ora Leland McCoy moved with his family to El Monte, California, just outside Los Angeles around 1894. The McCoy family was financially secure – Ora’s father, Frank Marion McCoy had been a successful farmer before retiring. The elder McCoy and his wife Sarah would have a total of eleven sons and daughters. Working as a delivery man for some time, Ora would eventually partner up with his brother Benjamin and become tobacconist, opening a cigar store on Main Street in El Monte.
Above: Private Ora Leland McCoy of the 158th Aero Squadron photographed while training to be an aircraft mechanic at Kelly Field, San Antonio, Texas. Photo: California State Library, California History Section.
Perhaps it was a familiarity with motor vehicles gleaned from his days as a delivery man that led Ora to be posted for training after enlistment as a mechanic at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas with the Army Air Service. After completing training he was assigned as a private to the 158th Aero Squadron, Army Air Service. The 158th was ordered to England and departed Texas for New York in early January 1918. Two days prior to embarking on the SS Tuscania McCoy wrote home in what would be his last letter to his family. Printed in the February 28, 1918 edition of The Arcadia Tribune it read in part: “I have taken out $10,000 insurance in favor of you. Tell all the bunch and all the folk’s goodbye for me. We have orders to leave, but don’t yet know where we are going.”
McCoy and the 158th boarded the Tuscania on January 24. Converted to a troop transport during the war, the onetime passenger ship was loaded down with some 2,013 United States Army personnel from various units. The voyage was probably uneventful until the Tuscania neared the Scottish coast. On the morning of February 5, she was spotted by the German U-boat UB-77 which proceeded to stalk her until 6:40 pm when under the cover of darkness she fired two torpedoes at the unsuspecting transport. One torpedo struck the ship near the engine room on the starboard side. The ship quickly took a list to starboard and began to go down by the stern. Reports stated that there was no panic although rough weather and darkness created a good deal of confusion. Due to the ship’s starboard list, the port side lifeboats became almost impossible to launch and many men ended up being washed into the frigid waters while others simply decided to swim for it and jumped overboard. Private Ora McCoy was in all likelihood one of these.
Above: February 1, 1918 headline from the New York Times announcing the sinking of the SS Tuscania.
Some of the men in the water where drawn into the propeller wash of the British destroyer HMS Mosquito which was attempting rescue operations while others were crushed between the hulls of the two vessels. Many would have simply succumbed to exhaustion and the cold and drowned. In all 210 persons were lost in the sinking of the Tuscania, 165 of them United States military personnel.
Ora McCoy’s body was found washed ashore on the Isle of Islay the next morning and buried there along with the remains of other American servicemen lost in the sinking. In 1920 his body was exhumed at his family’s request and returned to the United States and reinterred at Savannah Memorial Park in Rosemead, California.
Above: Temporary cemetery in Islay, Scotland, with the interments of those who died in the sinking of the SS Tuscania. Photo: The National Archives.
Today, long forgotten by most Americans on a windswept promontory on the Isle of Islay stands a tall stone monument which was erected in 1920 by the American Red Cross in memory of the victims of the sinking of the Tuscania and another ship the Otranto. On the monument’s dedicating plaque there is a short poem that reads:
On Fame’s Eternal camping ground
Their silent tents are spread
While Glory keeps with solemn round
The bivouac of the dead.
Above: Remembrance Day ceremonies at the Tuscania & Otranto Memorial on the Isle of Islay.