US flag returns home to Islay 100 years after WWI tragedy
An American flag hand stitched at the eleventh hour by a group of Islay women so it could be flown at a mass burial of US troops killed in a devastating torpedo attack is to return to the island to mark the 100th anniversary of the tragedy.
The stars and stripes were sewn in less than a day following the disaster on February 5, 1918, when the troopship SS Tuscania was struck by a German U-Boat around seven miles from Islay.
The ship was loaded with around 2,000 servicemen and crew, who were making their way from New York to the north of France, at the time of the tragedy, which will be examined in a new BBC Alba documentary tonight.
Islanders tried hard to save the men but and estimated 230 died, with many bodies washed up on the perilous rocks at the Mull of Oa in the dark of night.
The flag was made to insure the men were buried on Islay beneath their country’s colours and is now held at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington after being gifted to President Woodrow Wilson.
It will go show at the Museum of Islay Life in Port Charlotte next month following several months of negotiation.
Jenny Minto, chairwoman of the WW100 Islay committee and director of the museum, said: “The flag is probably the most iconic link between the US and Islay.”
The people of Port Ellen were officially thanked for looking after the American soldiers ‘as though they were their own children’ with a side-by-side relationship hailed.
She said: “We think you can’t get more of a side-by-side relationship than these women, and the joiner who drew the design, creating this wonderful flag at a time of such turmoil.”
Ms Minto travelled to Washington last year to view the flag.
She said: “It was a really, really poignant moment and such a privilege as no one from Islay had seen that flag for 100 years. People on Islay really want to see it. They want it back.”
Lord George Robertson of Port Ellen, the former defence secretary and secretary general Nato, will attend a series of centenary commemorations on the island on Friday.
His grandfather, Malcolm MacNeill, was the police sergeant on the island at the time of the tragedy with the village policeman thrown into the task of co-ordinating rescues, cataloguing the dead and identifying bodies.
Lord Robertson said: “The flag is a very precious item and is such an important part of the commemoration.
“It was an indication of an island which had no opportunity to bury their own who had died in the war.
“There was a deep feeling that these servicemen had to be honoured in the proper way.”
Sergeant MacNeill corresponded for many years with relatives of servicemen in the States who were desperate to establish the final fate of their loved ones.
He was awarded A MBE for his services, a rare honour at the time for a village policeman.
Lord Roberston said: “My grandfather was the son of a shepherd and worked on an island with virtually no crime. There may have been a few tractors with no lights on them but to go from that to this almost Lockerbie type disaster right on your door step in almost unimaginable, particularly when you considered there were very few communications or back up available.”
The full scale of his grandfather’s role was revealed to the family when a collection of his letters and notebooks was discovered in an uncle’s attic in Glasgow.
The descriptions of the men killed in the attack covers 81 pages of one notebook.
Also to be remembered is a second tragedy that struck Islay just eight months after the sinking of the Tuscania. On October 6, HMS Otranto was wrecked when it struck a steamship off Machir Bay, with a further 400 US lives lost.
Lord Robertson said the tragedies on Islay were barely noted for 90 years.
He added: “I can only assume that year was so traumatic that year that people closed it down. What happened to the Tuscania and the Otranto was virtually ignored.
“The people of Islay took in these men, sheltered them and tenderly looked after them. It was a very poor community but the people just gave every thing they have.”
The bodies of the men were later exhumed and either repatriated or buried at the American Cemetery at Brookwood in Surrey.
-Call air Cladach Ile/The Loss on Islay’s Shore, will be broadcast tonight (April 29) on BBC Alba at 9pm.