In the opening chapter of my novel, Plowed Fields, you learn the main protagonist was named after his uncle, who was killed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. But that is merely fiction. On this Memorial Day, I want to share a real-life story befitting the occasion.
I have a few relatives I could write about on Memorial Day, including a great-great grandfather, James Yawn, who married at age 14, fathered my great grandmother a year later and died at age 21 in Virginia during the early days of the Civil War. But the story that captures my attention most vividly—and one I’ve shared before—concerns my third cousin, Private James Melvin Boyett of Milltown, Georgia.
Jimmy Boyett joined the U.S. Army on July 16, 1918, along with more than two dozen other young men from Berrien County. They were members of the Over-seas Replacement Draft, destined to replenish U.S. troop strength in Europe during the waning days of World War I.
After completing basic training at Fort Screven on Tybee Island, Georgia, Jimmy and his fellow soldiers were shipped to New York, where they boarded the HMS Otranto and set sail for Liverpool, England on September 24, 1918.
On the morning of October 6—which coincidentally would become my birth date 43 years later—the Otranto was nearing the entrance to the North Channel, a narrow passage between Ireland and Scotland, when a gale struck off the Scottish coast, bringing heavy seas, high winds and poor visibility.
Another ship, the Kashmir, rammed into the side of the Otranto during the storm. The Kashmir was able to back away and eventually make port, but the collision left a gaping hole in the side of the Otranto. Water began pouring in, and eventually the ship floundered, drifting toward the rocky coast of Islay Island.
Hearing the Otranto’s distress calls, a small British destroyer, the Mounsey, came to the rescue. The Mounsey, a much smaller vessel, steered alongside the Otranto. With the heavy seas bouncing both ships up and down, the soldiers on the Otranto jumped from her decks, falling 30 to 40 feet.
Many of the Otranto soldiers missed their mark, falling into the sea or being crushed between the two heaving ships. Others suffered broken bones and more serious injuries as they landed on the deck of the destroyer. Twenty-five men from our small South Georgia county died in the disaster.
The fate of Jimmy Boyett was told to my family by Earlie Steward, one of the three Berrien County natives who survived the ordeal.
Jimmy could not swim, and as he huddled with his buddies on the Otranto’s deck, preparing to jump, he prophetically told them, “Boys, I’ll never make it.”
Jimmy leaped for the Mounsey’s deck, but he missed the mark. Whether he was crushed between the two vessels or drowned, no one knows.
As for the Otranto, it eventually drifted and stuck in the rocks off Islay Island. Waves battered and broke apart the ship, and the remaining crew and soldiers abandoned the vessel. Most drowned; Earlie Steward was one of 16 on board the ship to swim to safety on the Scottish coast.
It bothers me that so little is known about my third cousin, who lost his life without ever seeing a battlefield. Born August 31, 1894, he had just turned 24 when he died.
Jimmy was the third son and fifth child of William Hill and Lottie Cook Boyett. According to the 1910 Census, he could read, write and was still attending school at age 15 while helping his father farm in what is today Lanier County. He certainly favors what I think of as the Weaver side of my family, as his aunt, Jemima Boyett, married my great-grandfather, Martine Weaver.
My maternal grandmother, Carrie Weaver Baker, was 18 when her cousin Jimmy died. She remembered him with deep affection throughout her life, often saying she loved him like a brother and getting teary-eyed when she recounted his death and the sinking of the Otranto for her children.
No one knows where the final resting place is for Jimmy Boyett. He could have sank at sea, or his body may have been one of the hundreds that washed up on the shores of Islay Island. The bodies were initially buried in Kilchoman, in coffins hastily made from lumber shipped from Liverpool. Later, they were exhumed and reinterred in different places. The body of one of Jimmy Boyett’s neighbors, Shellie Webb, was eventually returned to Berrien County.
Today, a small monument stands in memory of Jimmy Boyett in the cemetery of Empire Church in Lanier County. In addition, the original Spirit of the American Doughboy monument built to honor World War I veterans and casualties sits on the courthouse square in Nashville, Georgia. Engraved on that monument are the words, “Lest We Forget.”
On this Memorial Day, I choose to remember the third cousin I never knew, but whose memory comes calling from time to time. May he and all those others who have given their lives as a sacrifice for our country rest in peace.
For more information about the Berrien County experience aboard the HMS Otranto, visit the sites:
In addition, check out:
Many Were Held By The Sea by R. Neil Scott, which is a riveting narrative of the maritime disaster.
I chose the name Plowed Fields for my blog not only because it is the name of my fist novel, but because it also pays homage to my farming roots.