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“The People Seem Odd & Talk Funny”: US Sailors Write About Cork During World War One

Between 1917 and 1919 thousands of American servicemen were stationed in Cork during World War One. What did they make of their surroundings? Back in the United States, local newspapers were eager to get correspondence from them, and family’s regularly contributed letters for local publication. We have identified a number, and reproduce them in full below. Here are descriptions from Americans based in Cobh, Aghada, Berehaven and Whiddy, with fascinating insights into both their service and their thoughts on Ireland and Irish people.

The first letter was written by Berkley Harker, who served aboard USS Trippe out of Cork Harbour. Berkley was also the pitcher for the vessel’s baseball team, and participated in the famous baseball game at the Mardyke Cricket Grounds in 1917. The letter was published in The Morning New Bernian in North Carolina on 18th August 1917.

NEW BERN BOY ON ‘SUB’ CHASER IN DANGER ZONE

Berkley Harker Writes of Picking Up British Crew, and of Sinking U-Boat

PITCHES BASEBALL GAME IN IRELAND

Mr. Berkley Harker, who is serving in the navy on one of Uncle Sam’s fighting ships, has written a most interesting letter to his mother, Mrs. James A. Harker, of this city. The letter was written in Queenstown, Ireland, on the first of August, and mailed in Newark, N.J., on the fifteenth by a member of the crew of an American oil tanker which sailed from Queenstown on the first. The letter in part follows:

“We have had some of the war and came out successful, no one being hurt. One time we picked up seventy-five survivors from an English merchant ship which had been sunk by a submarine. We were unable to find the sub, as it disappeared. We have seen three subs so far and dropped mines for them, and we are sure we got one, as we saw oil and some wood come up after we dropped the mine. The mine is set to explode at a certain depth, so when we sight a sub we run right over it and drop one of them.

We have a good baseball team, and I am the pitcher. We play every time we come in, but that is not often as we go to sea for five days and only stay in three. We have been to France and to Liverpool since we have been over here and we expect to go to London the last of this month for two weeks.

We are now on County Cork and only thirty-five miles from City Cork. The city has a population of about seventy-five thousand and is just about as lively as Beaufort.”

Mr. Harker enclosed a clipping from a Cork paper giving an account of a game of baseball played there between teams from the U.S.S. Trippe (Mr. Harker’s team) and the U.S.S. Melville, which is very interesting [the report of the game for the Cork Examiner clipping follows]

The Morning New Bernian 18th August 1917

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USS Trippe, victors of the Cork baseball game and the vessel on which Berkley Harker served (Naval History and Heritage Command)

The next letter was written by Lieutenant John Herlihy, who was based at the USNAS base in Aghada. He had interesting things to say about visits to a local castle (likely Rostellan) and the situation of people in Ireland. It was published in the Massachusetts Fitchburg Sentinel on 1st June 1918.

LIEUT. HERLIHY VISITS AN OLD CASTLE IN IRELAND

Lieut. John E. Herlihy, formerly a dentist in this city, is now stationed at the U.S. Naval air station at Queenstown Ireland [Aghada]. In a letter to his brother, Dr. David J. Herlihy, 304 Main street, he gives a description of his work and tells of a visit to an old castle that is located near the station.

He writes:

I have been fairly busy for a couple of weeks now and as a result I have not had any time to take any jaunts into the country.

I am operating here with a portable field outfit, collapsible chair, foot engine, and student case to hold instruments, something very similar to the outfit we used in school. The office cannot begin to compare with my office on the Missouri, but of course I can do the necessary work and that is all that is wanted.

There is hardly anything to do for excitement around here and in time I imagine it will get quite monotonous, though we are kept busy.

I generally go to town for weekends to meet the boys and to get the latest information about the war. We very seldom see any regular papers around here and I imagine you know more about what is going on on the western front than I do. I have many opportunities to talk with allied officers who have returned from the front and it is mighty interesting to listen to their experiences.

There is an old landowner who lives quite near here. I go over to have tea with him quite often. He has a wonderful estate of 1000 acres and some of the most beautiful gardens that I have ever seen. He lives in an old castle over 600 years old and he has taken me all through it. The walls of the castle are six feet thick and, of course, were built that way as a protection against attack in the old feudal period.

He showed me one room that had been built especially for King George IV who made a visit to the castle and who always objected to sleeping in a room that had ever been used by any one else. He showed me curios, antiques and paintings that he has collected from all over the world and they in themselves are worth a fortune. He and his wife live all alone in the castle and have a large coterie of servants.

After seeing how people have to live in this part of the world and what little they have to be glad about I am fully convinced that a man in the States even working for a salary is better off than a man with money over here– at least as far as enjoying life is concerned.

I know that by the time I see Fitchburg again, I will have had enough of traveling around, and I will be perfectly satisfied to settle down. By the looks of things now I do not expect to see the States again for a couple of years. Of course we can not tell just how long this war is going to last but we do know the allies are in for a finish fight.

I see Harold Pierce quite often and talk over old times. Try to write when you can as I would like to keep in touch with the latest news.

Fitchburg Sentinel, 1st June 1918

The video we recently produced on the WW1 USNAS Base at Aghada, where Lieutenant John Herlihy was based.

The next letter was published in Pennsylvania’s Wilkes-Barre Record on 27th August 1918. Thomas Bedner was also stationed at Aghada. He describes their pastimes in Cobh, their reception from the locals, and also a trip to the Blarney Stone.

LETTER FROM IRELAND

NORTH MAIN STREET BOY WRITES INTERESTINGLY FROM QUEENSTOWN

Thomas R. Bedner, son of A. Bedner, of North Main street enlisted in the naval aviation service early last fall, and is stationed at Queenstown, Ireland, at the naval air station. Before his enlistment he had been employed in mechanical capacities in Detroit automobile capacities in Detroit automobile work and at Bridgeport, Conn. Although not in the draft, Mr. Bedner decided to give his country the benefit of his skilled mechanical training and enlisted in the naval aviation. He writes to his father that he is in line for promotion and that his mechanical ability has stood him in good stead at the training station.

The following letter was received by his father. It contains interesting information of Ireland, the quaint customs and the conditions surrounding the navy boys stationed there:

“Dear Father– Well, everything is going fine with me here. We get ‘liberty’ every night and many of these free evenings we go to Queenstown where the Y.M.C.A. and Sailors’ Club have been established. Here we have movies every night– concerts by the ship’s band every Thursday night and a show and pictures every Saturday night. It’s about the only place in Ireland where we can buy ice cream.

“About a half mile from the club we have a dance auditorium. All civilians are excluded. The ship’s orchestra usually plays only American dance music, but once in a while they strike up an Irish tune, and then believe me the coleens are right there to whirl us around.

“These are about the only amusement places. If we do not feel like attending any of these we take long walks and visit some of the queer old villages. No street cars are seen around here. In some of the places they never saw a ‘Yank’ before. As soon as they see one or a group of us passing there is a general popping of heads out of windows as if there was a circus coming.

“During the summer there is only about five hours of darkness here. It is about 11 o’clock before it even starts to get dark. While I am writing this letter it is 9:30 and the sun is still bright in the sky. We don’t have to worry about lightless nights.

“Was to Blarny Castle when I first landed here and enjoyed the interesting experience of kissing the blarney stone. I almost broke my neck though before I managed to reach it. To kiss this stone, which is said to bless the person with ‘the gift of gab,’ it is necessary to go inside the castle, climb to the top window and then have someone you know who has a strong right arm to hold you by the feet with head down.

“A cemetery in which the Lusitania victims are buried is situated about two miles from Queenstown. All the sailors march there in a body on Decoration Day to decorate the graves with flowers. Many of the monuments and tombstones contain the inscription, ‘A Lusitania Victim; Foully Murdered by Germany.’

“It has been raining about every day this month. The weather is more like December than July and the mornings are very chilly.

“Would like to get the Record once in a while. I haven’t seen a Wilkes-Barre paper since I have been here.

“Give my regards to all and write soon,

“Your son,

“Tom.”

The Wilkes-Barre Record 27th August 1918

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An image of Thomas Bedner that accompanied his letter in the Wilkes-Barre Record (Wilkes-Barre Record)

There was another USNAS base on Whiddy Island in Bantry Bay. C.E. Durgee had correspondence about their 4th July celebrations published in The Daily Gate and Constitution-Democrat of Keokuk, Iowa on 14th September 1918.

AMERICAN Y.M.C.A. WORK IN WHIDDY ISLAND, BANTRY, IRELAND

BY C.E. DURGEE, GENERAL SECRETARY, WASHINGTON INN FOR AMERICAN OFFICERS, ST. JAMES’ SQUARE, LONDON, S.W.

With more of our men coming in here now, there is plenty of work to do. On the Fourth of July we had a great day– a baseball game in the morning, score 8-10, and in the afternoon a field meet, with the usual entries. The captain and officers attended; some played ball, and the men all voted it a great success. In the evening there was a mock trial, and a sing-song rounded out a most perfect day. The weather could not have been improved upon, and many of the men said they would never forget the Fourth of July on Whiddy “island.”

The captain sprang a surprise in the way of a flag raising, and now Old Glory floats in the breeze and cheers the hears of the brave men who are willing to lay down their lives in her defense. E. Evans has been quite ill and was sent to Queenstown by the doctor for observation. He is a very valuable man as an educator and in religious lines.

Arrangements are being made to chaperon a party to Killarney next Sunday. The captain here is very helpful and gracious, and told me that as long as we kept the men satisfied, to go as far as I liked. A number of fellows are wanting to send money home, and I think it should be encouraged. I don’t want the least opportunity to escape to be of service to these fine fellows. We have a dandy camp; the water supply is a problem, but the men are happy and willing to do anything.

Last night after “chow” we converted an almost impossible stony field into a respectable diamond. We had two auto trucks and hauled dirt and filled up holes, and all worked very hard. You can count on our sticking tight and making the best of whatever we have on hand here.

The Daily Gate and Constitution-Democrat, 14th September 1918

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The memorial to the Lusitania victims in Cobh Old Church Cemetery. The site was regularly visited by US sailors during the war. (Bjorn Christian Torrissen)

The most detailed description covered here was an account of Cobh from a Mr. Lockey in the Oregon Daily Journal of 26th November 1918. He spoke about the surrounds of the town in detail, together with a visit to the Lusitania graves and conversations he had alone the way with local children and a U.S. sailor from Idaho.

JOURNAL MAN AT HOME

At Queenstown Mr. Lockley reverently makes a pilgrimage to view the graves of those murdered on the Lusitania. He falls in with a bluejacket from Idaho, whose remarks are entertaining. There is also a word picture of Cork harbor.

Queenstown is on an island in Cork harbor. In the old says the city was called Cove, or the Cove of Cork. When Queen Victoria visited the city in 1849 it was renamed in her honor, Queenstown. Hundreds of thousands of Irish who are now Americans have had their last sight of Ireland at Queenstown as they stepped from Irish soil to the steamer that took them to the land of promise, for Queenstown is the principal port of embarkation for America. “You will see sailors from all the world ports on our streets in peace time,” said the hotel proprietor to me, “but nowadays the streets are thronged with men of the British navy, and your lads.”

R.J. Wynne, a Welshman who was born at North, Kan., and who is Y.M.C.A. secretary at Queenstown, said to me: “On Sunday, September 15, I had every bluejacket who came in register. Here is the list. There were 366 bluejackets who dropped into the ‘Y’ during the day. Every state in the Union but Idaho and Wyoming was represented.”

Cork harbor, from the heights above Queenstown, is a sight worth coming far to see. Scores of ships of every description ride at anchor in the harbor– transports and trawlers, destroyers and square-riggers, warships and tiny gasoline launches. Late one afternoon I decided to walk across the island beyond Spy Hill, where the farmer folk still speak their native Irish tongue. I stopped a black-haired, bright eyed little girl of 12 or 14 and asked her if I was on the road to Spy Hill. “Sure, sir, you are on the wrong road, altogether. You are going entirely away from it, sir.” “Where am I going?” I inquired. “I don’t know, sir, but if you keep on the road you are on now you will be after going to the cemetery. Many Americans go there to see the graves of the people who were drowned on the Lusitania. There are 260 buried in three big graves.” “How do I get there? Are there any turns in the road?” I inquired. “You will be after going straight along and the first you know straight ahead, sir. The road is very crooked, but just follow the turns you’re there.”

Presently I met a sailor lad who came onto the main road from a country lane. I said: “Do you know where the Lusitania victims are buried?” “Yes, sir. I’ll be glad to go with you and show you the place,” he said. The stone walls on both sides of the road were covered with blackberry vines that were loaded with ripe berries. We stopped now and then to eat berries. “My name is Ben Potter,” said the bluejacket. “My home is at Swan valley, in Idaho. It is about 30 miles from Idaho Falls, on the road from Pocatello to Butte, Mont. I just got a letter today from my mother. She says my youngest brother, 17 years old, has enlisted. there are four boys in our family, and all are in the service now. Say, this is some different from running a disc harrow on our 320-acre ranch in Idaho. The other day I had a seven-day furlough. I went to visit my brother in England. We went out to see a big Handley-Page plane go up. We asked the officer if we could do up. He said he was sorry, but it was against orders. he started the propeller. It made so much racket you couldn’t hear anything else. My brother said, “Let’s climb in just as he starts. he won’t know, and when he gets up he won’t throw us out.” So we got aboard. We hadn’t been up more than a minute or two till the officer looked back and saw he had some stowaways. He grinned at us and then turned around and headed the plane towards the seacoast. We got up about 4000 feet, and his engine died. he got it started again, and in about an hour we flew back to where we started. When we landed we thanked him. He said, “It is against orders to take up passengers. I didn’t have any. I took up some ballast. If the ballast enjoyed the trip, I am glad of it.” He was a pretty good sport, all right.”

We turned in at the old graveyard with its old world orderliness and its ancient Irish crosses over the graves. Soon we came to three large mounds, each of which was about 20×30 feet. The inscription stated that here were buried the victims of the Lusitania, torpedoed near that port. We stood silent. Finally my companion said, “Well, I would like to be home, but I don’t want to go till Germany is taught, and taught for all time, that murdering women and children can’t be done. I guess it’s up to us to help make the world a safe and decent place to live in.”

We started for the crest of a nearby hill, from which, like a panorama, the whole harbor was unrolled like a scroll before us. “I weigh 187, and I have to train down to 175 within the next 10 days, as I represent my ship in a wrestling match that is being pulled off,” said my companion. “I met a likeable chap recently– one that could ask as many questions as you can. His name was Peter Clark McFarlane. He invited me to his room and I spent the evening with him. He told me he was writing a series of articles for the Saturday Evening Post. I am going to watch and see if he mentions Queenstown and the fleet here, and if he does I am going to send the copy of the Post to my mother.”

Presently we found a sunken road bordered with ancient elms and beeches. I said: “Here is a regular trench, or ravine. We can make our way down it to the harbor.” “They drive their cows down these sunken roads, so I guess its name is a bovine rather than a ravine,” said my friend, the bluejacket. It was getting dark, so he hurried down to the dock to catch the “liberty boat” back to his ship, while I stood on a high point and looked out toward Forts Camden and Carlisle, which face each other across the entrance of the harbor. In the foreground was the lofty spire of the granite gray cathedral of St. Colman. Across the water a few miles lay Aghada, our naval aviation station, and not far from it was Crosshaven, near which is the amber-colored Owenabwee river, referred to in the plaintive Jacobite ballad of which the following is a verse:

“On Carrigdhoun the heath is brown,

The clouds are dark on Ardnalee,

And many a stream comes racing down

To swell the angry Owenabwee

The moaning blast is whistling past,

Through many a leafless tree,

But I’m alone, for he is gone;

My hawk has flown. Ochone Machree!”

The Oregon Daily Journal 26th November 1918

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Blarney Castle and the Blarney Stone was a popular destination for American sailors during their service in Ireland in World War One (Guilhem D.)

The San Francisco Chronicle of 22nd December 1918 brought a letter from a sailor who described his work aboard USS Allen, attacking U-Boats from Cork Harbour. He had also made a visit to the Blarney Stone, and was very protective of service in the Navy.

BOY SERVING OFF IRELAND WRITES HOME

Destruction of a German submarine by the explosion of an “Ash Can” dropped from a destroyer, the deck of which is seen in the photograph, which was sent to George A. Tracy by his son in the Navy.

GEORGE A TRACY RECEIVES LETTER FROM SON IN TRANSPORT CONVOY SECTION AT QUEENSTOWN

Personal experiences in dropping “ash cans” on German submarines from the after deck of a United States destroyer are recounted in a letter received by George A. Tracy, president of the Civil Service Commission, from his son, George A. Tracy Jr., who has been in very active service off the Irish coast.

Remarking that now the censorship is lifted he can tell his story with more detail, young Tracy begins by stating that the base of operations of the U.S.S. Allen, to which he was attached, and known as Base 6, is at Queenstown, County Cork, Ireland.

Queenstown looks “half as large as Redwood City” to this San Franciscan, who says that in the early days of the war the shore liberty of the boys of the destroyer flotilla included the city of Cork, but that owing to a rather vigorous celebration there, the shore liberty was cut down to the limits of Queenstown.

“Tell your Irish friends I kissed the Blarney Stone,” he writes, “The Lusitania was sunk just five miles off the coast at Queenstown, and there is a buoy that marks the spot today.”

Patrolling the Irish coast and convoying ships on the run from Queenstown to Liverpool and to Brest was the work of the destroyer squadron to which young Tracy was attached, and to illustrate the character of the work sends a photograph taken from a destroyer and showing a German submarine being lifted from the water by the explosion of an “ash can.”

Expressing a high regard for the work of the land forces, young Tracy instructs his father to reprimand anyone who may express the idea that the boys of the Navy have not been doing big things while the censorship prevented the telling of all the details.

“If they boost soldiers too high, we might go on strike, and, now that we have got them over here, refuse to bring them back,” he says. “But, believe me, the trips from now on will be pleasure trips, rather than the hunting variety.”

In the course of his service in the war Tracy writes he had the opportunity to visit London and Southampton in England, and Brest and Harve in France, and take a three days inland journey in that country.

San Francisco Chronicle 22nd December 1918

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The image of a German U-Boat being destroyed by an “Ash-Can” that was carried in the San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco Chronicle)

Our final letter comes from a sailor serving aboard USS Oklahoma in Bantry Bay, one of the vessels that would later be one of those attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor in 1941. William Hoffman was somewhat ignorant of the history of the area, believing that before the American arrival Bantry had been a German U-Boat base, though his views do provide an insight into some of the tensions that often existed between locals and American servicemen. He nonetheless though it a beautiful country, but confessed that he thought the people talked funny. His letter was published in the Lincoln County News, North Carolina on 20th December 1918.

SAILOR HOFFMAN OF THE NAVY WRITES

Mr. Fred L. Hoffman of this city, has received a letter from his son, Sailor William Hoffman, a portion of which we are printing below. The letter is dated U.S.S. Oklahoma, “Bantry Bay”, Ireland, Nov. 20, 1918.

“Well I am in Ireland. Our base has been here in Bantry Bay since we came across to this side. It is as you can see on the map in the Southern part of Ireland. It lies between high mountains which are in every direction you look. Before the U.S. entered the war it was a German submarine base and the Irish supplied them with provisions, etc., as a good many of them were in sympathy with Germany. But now it is an American naval base and there are battleships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, sub-chasers, mine sweepers and layers and all other kinds of vessels here. Zed Crawford is in here on a submarine chaser but I haven’t seen him. We have been operating and conveying in the most dangerous part of the war zone. Before we came over more than 500 ships had been sunk here off the Irish coast where we are on duty. We have convoyed thousands of troops ammunition and food supplies, etc., and have been along the coast of France, England, Scotland and Ireland. Of course besides convoying, our main object over here was to fight the German highseas fleet when she came out, but they didn’t come out.

The country of Ireland is beautiful. It is always green and is terraced in plots or squares so that it looks exactly like a checker board. There are very few trees and it rains about 9 out of every 10 days. The people seem odd and talk funny. You can’t hardly understand a word they say. Their shoes are very thick and heavy, many of them have iron soles, and the women most always wear shawls. Most of the horses and mules are very small and their buggies or carts have seats on the sides and are much higher from the ground than ours. And their trains are just like toys beside those in America. there are many saloons but it a very serious offense for an American sailor to get drunk and the very few that do are severely dealt with. I don’t see how the people live around here as their gardens are very small. They raise lots of sheep and cattle. there are many old castles and things of that kind to see.

We go on recreation and liberty in Bere Island, Castletown and Bantry. On Bere Island there are British soldiers, some who have already been in the trenches and others who are preparing to go. They have barbedwire entanglements, real trenches and everything there is in this modern warfare. In a little house they have every kind of poisonous gas the Germans use. All of us went through it, of course with our gas masks on. Some gas, believe me.

We have aboard very often many big speakers from over here, also from the States, who have given us very fine and interesting lectures of the war, etc. We have shows from London and other places and moving pictures every night. I have been getting your letters and papers and you can’t imagine how much they are appreciated all the boys shout with joy when mail comes aboard. I am in excellent health and have been exceedingly lucky in the way of sickness for there was about 200 cases of “flu” on here awhile back. Six of our boys and our ordnance officer died. They were buried in Queenstown, Ireland. A good many of our ships, submarines etc., are going back to the States pretty soon, but I think we will be over here some little time yet. William.

The Lincoln County News 20th December 1918

We hope to share many more of these letters from U.S. servicemen stationed in Cork during World War One in the months ahead.

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USS Oklahoma in 1917, which William Hoffman served on in Bantry Bay. 429 of the crew died when she capsized following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7th December 1941 (Naval History and Heritage Command)

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