The Roof of the World

I acquired this small watercolor a number of years ago. At first, it may not appear an outstanding work of art, but in its own very special context it is a rather remarkable historical document.

Briggs Watercolor

Above: Its paper yellowed with age but with unfaded colors, Captain David Briggs’ study captures a view of what is probably the Arun Valley in Nepal. The painting measures approximately 12 1/2 inches wide by 9 3/8 inches high (31.9cm x 23.7cm). c. 1857 Source: Collection of Edward T. Garcia/soldiersofthequeen.com

The painting depicts an idyllic if dramatic mountain landscape replete with two travelers in the foreground and a hilltop village in the middle distance. Unsigned, the painting bears a period pencil inscription on the reverse which reads: “China, drawn from
memory by Captain Briggs on board the Oriental for me.
”  Also inscribed in another hand are the words “Tibet?” and “Arun Valley”. At some point, someone seems to have been trying to determine the precise location that Captain Briggs had chosen to paint.

Briggs Inscription

Above: Although faint, the pencil inscription on the watercolor’s back is legible enough to read. It provided key information in researching the origins of the work. Source: Collection of Edward T. Garcia/soldiersofthequeen.com.

This inscription is what led me to purchase the painting since it seemed to indicate that it may have been drawn by a British officer of the Indian Army during his passage home. Exactly when was an initial mystery although the style of a work seemed to indicate the 1850s to the 1860s time period.

At this time my research seems to identify the artist as then Captain David Briggs of the 17th Native (Bengal) Infantry which was part of the British East India Company’s army. Briggs served while a Lieutenant and later Captain as the Superintendent of Hill and Mountain Roads in Bengal during the 1850s. Although nothing of Briggs educational background has come to light he must have studied more than a modest amount of engineering since positions such as the one he was appointed to would at a later date been held by officers of the Royal Engineers.

David Briggs was born around 1825 to Colonel Briggs possibly at Fifeshire, Scotland. Hewas appointed Ensign on 11 June 1841 and was promoted as follows: Lieutenant, 8 September 1843; Captain, 27 July 1855; Major, 11 June 1861; Lieutenant-Colonel, 11 June 1867. He was promoted Brevet Colonel at an as yet undetermined date and promoted Major-General on 23 January 1875. Briggs saw active service in the field during the Indian Mutiny during 1857 as Superintendent of the Army Transport Train and was present at the siege and capture of Delhi. He also served during the Bhutan Campaign of 1865. He was married to Miss Elizabeth Sleeman at Jabbalpore, India on 29 September 1849. Briggs died in 1908 at Fifeshire, Scotland.

After examining the painting at some length I thought it possible that Briggs was depicting from memory the mountain that in 1857 would become known as Mount Everest. Briggs held the rank of Captain from 1855 to 1861 so the painting must date from that time period. Given that Briggs did the watercolor from memory it could very well be a view of the mountain from the Arun Valley in Nepal. If this is the case then this painting is one of the earliest European artistic representations of the worlds highest peak I have personally seen.

I posted this image on my original but now defunct solidersofthequeen blog some time ago and received the following information from Peter G:

“I walked up the Arun Valley in 1986 following the original Everest expedition route used by Tilman in 1950. On this trek, I learned that Everest was not visible from the Arun Valley due to it being blocked from view by the extensive Chamling Ridge. If the painting depicts a view from the Arun Valley in Nepal as you suggest, then the mountain in the painting is very likely to be Makalu – 5th highest mountain in the world. Makalu dominates the Arun and appears like a beacon to the north as you progress up the valley, very much as is represented in the painting. I recall such a view from the village of Tumlingtar.

However, if the painting is from the Tibetan reaches of the Arun, then it is possible it is Everest, although I feel the foreground depicts a very Nepali scene rather than a more barren Tibetan landscape.”

arun-valley

Above: A present-day view looking up the Arun Valley towards Mt Makalu. Captain Brigg’s painting was apparently rendered from memory and there is no way to know his precise vantage point from which he originally viewed the scene. Given that, this view does bear more than a passing resemblance to that shown in his watercolor. Photo courtesy of gorkhaadventure.com.

Given the evidence such as it is, my guess is that Captain Briggs’ painting does indeed offer us a view of Mt. Makalu from the Arun Valley in Nepal. The original owner’s guess that the locality was in China was in error since the widely traveled Captain Briggs never visited China. The “Tibet?” guess is also out of the question since that remote kingdom was closed to Europeans until it was forcibly opened by the 1903-04 expedition led by Lieutenant Colonel Sir Francis Edward Younghusband.

 

Sergeant Holden’s Squad

The three U.S. Army infantrymen standing at the right side of the photo were – according to a very faint caption on the lower edge of the photograph – members of Sergeant Holden’s squad. Holden appears at the far left of this image which was taken at Camp Columbia, Cuba sometime between 1899 and 1902, not long after the end of the Spanish-American War. The dates are based upon the time period when elements of the 7th U. S. Cavalry was stationed at Camp Columbia. An unidentified trooper or officer of the 7th compiled the album in which this photograph originated.

Sergeant Holdens Squad

Above: Sergeant James Holden of “F” Company, 8th U.S. Infantry (left) with the three mysterious Obnan brothers at Camp Columbia, Cuba c. 1900. Photo: soldiersofthequeen.com/Edward T. Garcia collection.

This sergeant appears to be Sergeant James Holden of Company “F”, 8th United States Infantry. Holden was born about 1870 in Kilkenny, Ireland and was a resident of New York City when he enlisted in the 8th U.S. Infantry on 5 June 1896. He was honorably discharged with the rank of corporal at Havana, Cuba on 4 June 1899. He reenlisted the following day and served until 4 June 1902 when he was honorably discharged at the rank of sergeant. At the time of both discharges, his character was listed as “excellent”.

Sergeant_Holdens_Service Card

Above: Sergeant James Holden’s New York State, Spanish-American War Military and Naval Service Card from his second term of enlistment. Souce: Adjutant General’s Office. New York State Archives, Albany, New York. 

After army service, Holden would marry Miss Hannah Cochrane in 1905. The couple would have two sons, Joseph, born around 1910 in Manhattan, and William Thomas, born around 1914 in Brooklyn, New York.

Interestingly a somewhat shaky handed ink inscription on the photograph’s reverse side reads: “Obnan brothers, Liberty Pa.” My assumption is that all three of the soldiers with Sergeant Holden were in fact brothers – they do bear resemblances to one another to a certain degree. The photo may have been something of a novelty if indeed tree brothers were serving in Holden’s squad. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any records of anyone, let alone two or three brothers by the name of Obnan serving in Cuba at the time or living in Liberty, Pennsylvania in the time periods before or after the approximate date of the photo.

Sergeant_Holdens_Squad_Detail

Above: A detail of Sergeant Holden’s photograph. Photo: soldiersofthequeen.com/Edward T. Garcia collection.

All four men are armed with either Model 1896 or Model 1898 U.S. Krag-Jorgensen Rifles. Sergeant Holden and two of his men wear dark blue, double-looped Mills Cartridge Belts while the Private second from right wears a khaki version of the same belt. All four men seem to be wearing Khaki service tunics of the type adopted in August of 1899. Additionally, all four men wear U.S. issued M1889 tropical service helmets.

Postmark – U.S.S. Arizona

 

Seventy-seven years ago the battleship USS Arizona was sunk by Japanese bombs during the infamous surprise attack that launched a reluctant United States into World War Two.

This commemorative postal cover harkens back to a happier time on the great ship in 1938 while the Arizona was stationed at San Pedro, California along with the entire U.S. Navy Pacific battle fleet.  The cover was issued by American Naval Cancellation Society and postmarked San Pedro on board the Arizona on February 12, 1938. The recipient was a Mr. Paul Bilsland of Wenatchee, Washington.

USS Arizona Postal Cover

USS Arizona Postal Cover Reverse

Above: The front and back of the Abraham Lincoln commemorative postal cover postmarked 12 February 1938 on board the battleship U.S.S. Arizona at San Pedro, California. Source: Edward T. Garcia collection.

While postmarked on board the Arizona, the cover actually commemorates President Abraham Lincoln and bears a short quote from his Gettysburg Address: “That these dead shall not have died in vain.” The quote is especially poignant in an almost surreal way when one considers the terrible fate the ship and her crew would suffer just a few short years later.

The reverse side of the cover bears two large stamps from the American Naval Cancellation Society as well a small one that bears reads:  “M. M. Parker, USS Arizona, San Pedro, California, (A.N.C.S. 450)”. Parker, actually Melton M. Parker, created the commemorative cachet of Lincoln and hand applied the light coloring used to accent the image.

While obviously a member of the Naval Cancellation Society Parker also appears to have been a member of the ship’s crew, possibly its acting postmaster. He seems to be the same Melton M. Parker who held the rating of SK2c (Store Keeper, 2nd Class) and shows up on the muster sheet for San Diego Naval Air Station in 1939 having transferred there from the USS Arizona on May 8, 1939.

Parker would continue to serve at San Diego until transferred to the Naval Training Center at Los Angeles, California on February 14, 1942.  Parker would actively serve in the U.S. Navy throughout World War II and during the Korean War, retiring as Chief Warrant Officer after 31 years of service. Parker died at San Antonio, Texas in 1977.

Melton Murry Parker

Above: Chief Warrant Officer Melton Murry Parker in a photo taken sometime after World War Two. Photo: U.S. Navy/Parker/Stickland Family Tree/ancestry.com

USS Arizona

Above: Happier times – The USS Arizona in heavy seas off the coast of California in the 1930s. U.S. Navy/National Archives.

USS Arizona Memorial

Above: Still bleeding – the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor. The oil that still leaks from her fuel oil bunkers can be clearly seen in this recent photograph.

The Soldier-Printer

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to curate an exhibit titled African American Military Portraits from the American Civil War. The exhibit was created to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the end of the war and was hosted by the California African American Museum and  the historic main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library in Downtown Los Angeles. With its main component consisting of photographic portraits of black soldiers who fought for the Union, each image in the exhibit was accompanied by new biographical and historical research. This carte de visite from the Gladstone Collection in the Library of Congress in one such image.

John N. Sharper was born on May 21, 1841, in Herkimer, New York the son of Samuel and Jane Sharper. He was a printer by trade when he enlisted as a private in “G” Company, 14th Rhode Island (Colored) Heavy Artillery on October 3, 1863, at Providence, Rhode Island.

John Sharper

Above: The carte de visite portrait of Private John N. Sharper of the 14th Rhode Island (Colored) Heavy Artillery (later 11th Heavy Artillery Regiment, United States Colored Troops) c. 1864 Photo: Gladstone Collection of African American Photographs,
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

After his enlistment, the 14th Rhode Island (Colored) Heavy Artillery was incorporated into the regular U.S. Army and was reorganized as the 11th Heavy Artillery Regiment, United States Colored Troops. The 11th was attached to the Department of the Gulf and was stationed at Matagorda Island, Texas and New Orleans, Louisiana.

Putting his pre-war trade to good use, Sharper was appointed post printer while stationed at New Orleans, a post he held until he received a disability discharge at the Corps d’Afrique Military Hospital in New Orleans on September 11, 1865.  He returned home but possibly due to his service-related disability, John Sharper died on April 5, 1866. He was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Herkimer, New York where his much-weathered memorial can still be seen.

Sharper Grave

Above: A detail of John N. Sharper’s headstone located at Oak Hill Cemetery, Herkimer, New York. Photo: findagrave.com.

Reconciling Family Tradition with History

This photograph was filed away in my collection for many years simply because I had been unable to confirm the story that came with it when purchased in 2000. According to the information that accompanied the sale the great-great-granddaughter of this Highland sergeant stated that his name was William Henry Jenkins of the Black Watch (Royal Highlanders) and that he had been born in England in the 1870s. He supposedly stood over 6 feet tall and had served at some point as a member of Queen Victoria’s bodyguard. Additionally, she stated that he had married his 2nd cousin Mary Jenkins and that the couple had two sons: Stewart, born at Edinburgh Castle and James born at Sterling Castle. It was also said that the family moved to Canada sometime around 1905.

Unfortunately, at the time I had not been able to confirm or disprove any of this story. I always take any oral history that may be attached to a photograph (or any historical artifact for that matter) with a grain or two of salt not so much because I disbelieve the integrity of the teller but simply because I know how jumbled family history can become after the passage of 100 years. Recently I reopened the file on William Henry Jenkins and was able to confirm a greater part of the recollections of his great-great-granddaughter.

William Henry Jenkins was born at Hastings, Sussex on 8 March 1868 the son of Frederick and Sarah Jenkins.

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Above: Like father, like son. An undated photograph depicting Sergeant William Henry Jenkins of the Black Watch (Royal Highlanders) with his eldest son Stewart. Photo: soldiersofthequeen.com/Edward T. Garcia collection.

He attested for short service with the Royal Highlanders (The Black Watch) as No. 4133 on 16 June 1890. He was 21 years, 3 months old at the time and was a stone mason. He was stated as standing 5 feet, 10 inches tall. This was not the “over six feet” that his great-great-granddaughter recalled but still rather tall for the time period.

Jenkin’s Statement of Service is rather brief and to the point. Posted with the 2nd Battalion he was appointed lance corporal in 1890 (some details of his records are difficult to make out) and promoted corporal in March 1892. Appointed lance sergeant on 24 October 1895 and promoted to sergeant on 18 December 1896. He was permitted to extend his service to 12 years on 4 May 1897.

He was posted as sergeant to the Depot, Royal Highlanders on 25 August 1898 and extended his term of service once again on 1 November 1902 to complete 21 years with the colours. Jenkins received a certificate of cooking from Aldershot on 13 September 1891 as well as one other qualification certificate at Aldershot the nature of which cannot be made out due to the low quality of the document image.

On 4 December 1902 Jenkins transferred to the Military Provost Staff Corps as No.1322. Sergeant William Henry Jenkins was discharged at his own request after 18 years of service on 11 June 1908.

Jenkin’s deployment history is equally short and to the point:

Home: 12 June 1891 – 21 October 1899
South Africa: 22 June 1899 – 21 August 1901
Home: 25 August 1901 -11 June 1908

According to his service papers, Jenkins was entitled to the Queen’s South Africa Medal with the single clasp “Cape Colony”. The medal rolls for the Queen’s South Africa Medal dated 10 June 1903 states that he was entitled to a pair of clasps: “Cape Colony” and “South Africa – 1901”. This same roll mentioned Jenkins being invalided home. His medical history sheet states that it was an attack of neuralgia that sent him home from South Africa.

His service records state that William Henry Jenkins married Miss Mary Hannah Jenkins in October 1897. With their surnames being that same it is quite possible that they were indeed cousins. Their two sons are also mentioned: Stewart William, born at Edinburgh Castle on 31 August 1902 and Frederick Norman on 25 August 1907 (the location is unreadable in the document).

The family arrived at Quebec, Canada on board the RMS Empress of Britain on 5 June 1908 (his retirement date from the army at stated in his service papers as 11 June, 1908 some six days after the family’s arrival in Canada so Jenkins must have received permission to depart Britain before his formal retirement date.) They lived in Quebec for several years where William took the time to join the (53rd) Sherbrooke Regiment. He served with that unit for a total of 3 years, 5 months. The family moved on to British Columbia sometime before World War One where William once more sought out the local regiment – this time the 30th British Columbia Horse – which he joined and in which he served 2 years, 11 months.

On 1 August 1918, the now 49-year-old William Henry Jenkins attested as No. 2706155 for the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force at Vernon, British Columbia. Interestingly his gives his family’s address as the Internment Camp, Vernon, British Columbia. He was discharged on 11 April 1920 at Vernon, British Columbia.

This mentioned camp was one of many set up throughout Canada during World War One to house enemy aliens. The camp at Vernon held several thousand people of Ukrainian descent who were considered subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Obviously, the Jenkins family were not internees but William must have been employed in some fashion at the camp. His attestation papers give his profession at this time as a wood carver.

Jenkin’s service papers state that he served with the 11th Battalion, Canadian Garrison Regiment, and he apparently remained in Canada during the duration of his enlistment. His discharge documents also list the medals he was entitled to for his combined military service. Here it is stated that he was entitled to the Queen’s South Africa Medal with four clasps, the King’s South Africa Medal (presumably with its usual two clasps), the Long Service & Good Conduct Medal and the Edward VII Coronation Medal. Since his entire enlistment during World War One was spent in Canada he was not entitled to any of usually awarded medals for that conflict.

Jenkins 2

Above: A page from William Henry Jenkins’ Canadian World War One discharge papers. His medal entitlements as listed here – The Edward VII Coronation Medal, the Queen’s South Africa Medal with four clasps, the King’s South Africa Medal and the Long Service & Good Conduct Medal – are at odds with his earlier British service papers and Anglo-Boer War medal rolls. My tendency is to assume that this latest document is correct simply because the discharge board could well have had access to additional documentation not readily available today. Photo: Library and Archives Canada.

William Henry Jenkins passed away at Naksup, British Columbia on 15 April 1943.

Note: Jenkins great-great-granddaughter related that he had once been appointed to serve as part of Queen Victoria’s bodyguard. I have found nothing in his service records to show he ever served in such a capacity while in England. His entitlement to the Edward VII Coronation Medal indicates that he was among the selected NCOs and other ranks of various regiments invited to take part in the coronation ceremonies in 1902. It is quite possible that Jenkin’s service in the coronation was translated years later to service with the previous reigning monarch.

 
Additionally, the discrepancies in official documents regarding Jenkins’ medal entitlement will probably never be fully resolved unless his named medal group turns up.
 

 

Mounted Photograph (cut album page)
8 1/4 Inches x 5 3/4 Inches (21cm x14.5cm)
Unknown Photographer
Unknown British Location
c. 1900s

He Chose the Western Front to Paradise

2017-18 marks the 100th anniversary of the United States involvement in World War One. Very little seems to officially being done to commemorate the events and the veterans who took part in them. Some time ago I was curating a proposed exhibit that commemorated the contributions made to the war effort by African American soldiers and sailors from California. Ultimately and quite regrettably this exhibit never came to fruition but I thought I’d share the story of one of the soldiers who were to be highlighted in the exhibit. I used well-established research techniques along with a good dose of what I have learned over the past 20 years as a genealogist to piece together the life of Sergeant Edwin Mosely Thompson of the 25th Infantry and 805th Pioneer Infantry, United States Army.

Edwin Mosely Thompson.png

Above: Private (later sergeant) Edwin Mosley Thompson in a highly evocative real photo postcard portrait taken while he was stationed at Schofield Barracks, Oahu, Hawaii Territory c. 1915. Thompson would voluntarily leave the safety of garrison duty in Hawaii for service in the muddy trenches of the Western Front. Thompson wears his expert marksman badge just above the pocket of his tunic. Photo: California State Library.

Edwin Mosley Thompson was born on May 8, 1898, in Sacramento California being one of five children of William Joshua Thompson and Sarah Mosely. The elder Thompson was a plumber by trade. Little can be discerned regarding Edwin’s youth prior to his enlistment in the army. He was not yet seventeen when he volunteered in November 1914 and was assigned as a private to the 25th Infantry Regiment which was performing garrison duty in Hawaii Territory. While the World War was already raging in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Far East, America had not yet been drawn into the fighting and duty in Hawaii must have been of the preferred postings for army personnel.  The 25th Infantry was one of the famed “Buffalo Soldier” regiments of the regular U.S. Army and would remain to garrison Hawaii throughout the war.

With America’s entry into the war on April 6, 1917, Edwin Thompson volunteered for combat service in Europe. He was one of a cadre of 25 veteran members of the 25th Infantry – many of these “old soldiers” like Mosely were not long out of their teens –  were assigned to newly raised units of volunteers and draftees and by their example were expected to impart a steadying influence on the new raw recruits. Mosely was assigned to Company G of the 805th Pioneer Infantry then being organized at Camp Funston, Kansas, Nicknamed the “Bearcats”, the 805th was a white officered but otherwise all-black unit made up of men primarily from Missouri and Mississippi.

Edwin Mosely Thompson Service Card Back

Above: Filled by his mother while Edwin Mosely Thompson was still overseas, his California War History Committee service card gives a remarkable amount of detail regarding the soldier’s life prior to joining the army. One interesting detail is his pre-war job as a second cook on the Southern Pacific Railroad. Source: California State Library.

The Bearcats arrived in France in July 1918 and were assigned to the Department of Light Railways and Roads. Something of a hybrid regiment, the 805th like all pioneer infantry were generally detailed to engineering and construction duties but were also expected to act as regular infantry as the need arose. Edwin Thompson had qualified as an expert marksman while still in Hawaii and this skill must have been of more than a passing value while in France.

Colors of the 805th

Above: The colors of the 805th Pioneer Infantry as they appeared in the regiments official history: Victory – The History of the 805th Pioneer Infantry, American Expeditionary Forces by Major Paul S, Bliss (1919).

While at the front, G Company was detailed to protect, repair and maintain a two-kilometer section of the Avocourt-Esnes Road near the French town of Avocourt. On at least one occasion G Company was subjected to a German poison gas attack but suffered no casualties. In the unit’s official history – Victory: History of 805th Pioneer Infantry, American Expeditionary Forces – it is mentioned that on moonlit nights the company was also subject to German aerial bombardment. In total, the Bearcats would serve a total of 39 days at the front.

Tank

Above: Members of the 805th move a wooden decoy of a French Renault light tank. It is quite possible that the 805th may have built this decoy as well as others like it. Decoys such as this were intended to fool German reconnaissance flights. Photo: Signal Corps, U.S. Army.

With the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918, Thompson and the 805th were stationed at Chateau de Chatel-Chehrey while awaiting their place on troopships home. To pass the time they busied themselves with various entertainments including inter-regimental baseball games between the Bearcats and other black units. Under the management of Captain George M. Bragan, the team kept a perfect 10-0 record. The team’s perfect record was no doubt helped by the presence of several “ringers” in the lineup. These included William P. “Plunk” Drake, High R. Blackburn, and Otto C. “Jay Bird” Ray, all of whom would go on to post-war professional baseball careers in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs.

In July 1919 Edwin Thompson along with the rest of the 805th returned to the United States on board the USS Zeppelin. At some point prior to his discharge on June 4. 1920 Thompson was promoted sergeant. The regiment was entitled to the Meuse-Argonne battle streamer on its regimental color and its individual members – Edwin Mosely Thompson included – were entitled to the World War One Victory Medal with the Meuse-Argonne battle clasp.

Medal

Above: The United States World War One Victory Medal with the Meuse-Argonne battle clasp. Each man of the 805th was entitled to this medal for his service in France during the war.

Thompson returned to live with his parents who were now residing in Los Angeles and found employment as a civilian cook with the U.S. Army – possibly at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro. He was married by this time with his wife’s name being Beatrice.

Beatrice had died by 1930 when Thompson had moved to Kansas City where he was employed as a valet at a theater. Perhaps he was bitten by the acting bug while working at the theater because in 1931 he had returned to California to marry Miss Claire Marie Countee Fields and the occupation he listed on the couple’s marriage license with that of an actor. The couple does not appear to have had any children.

Former sergeant Edwin Mosely Thompson passed away at the age of 56 on July 20, 1954, and was buried with full military honors at Golden Gate National Cemetery, San Bruno, California.

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.

McCoy

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.

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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.

roads_tuscania

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.

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Above: Remembrance Day ceremonies at the Tuscania & Otranto Memorial on the Isle of Islay.