The Islay Stars and Stripes
On the evening of February 5, 1918, the German submarine UB-77 fired a 2,000 pound torpedo into the starboard side of the 576-foot American troop ship, SS Tuscania. On board the ship were 2,164 American soldiers from the Great Lakes and Pacific Northwest en route to Le Havre, France. The men, members of the 6th Battalion, 20th Engineers, 32nd Infantry Division, and various Aero Squadrons, were some of the first Americans sent to fight Germans in the First World War.
When UB-77's torpedo struck Tuscania's hull, the ship was seven miles southwest of the Scottish island of Islay, well-known for its peated malt whiskies. When the torpedo's explosion engulfed the boiler room, the men and crew abandoned the sinking vessel into the icy north Atlantic. Two British destroyers heroically rescued a majority of the soldiers, and 132 other men made it to Islay on small rafts where locals pulled them safely to shore.
Sadly though, 200 men were killed in action. 183 bodies were recovered on the island's rocky shores. Islay's residents immediately launched a massive effort to shelter, feed, and clothe the survivors. They also prepared each of the deceased for burial at two sites, not far from the Port Ellen distillery (which closed in 1983, but will reopen in 2020) and the Port Charlotte distillery (which closed in 1929 but was partially renovated between 2009-2014). [Today, whisky made at Bruichladdich matures at the old Port Charlotte site].
The Islay villagers were determined to bury the American soldiers with honor- under their national colors. Four Islay women, Jessie McLellan, Mary Cunningham, Catherine McGregor, and Mary Armour, and one man, John McDougall, worked through the first night to gather red, white, and blue cloth. Using an encyclopedia as their guide, they worked non-stop to fashion 96 five-pointed stars (48 for each side) plus seven red and six white bars. In a matter of days, they respectfully stitched together a 67' x 37' rectangular American flag, which was hoisted on February 8 as several hundred islanders laid our men to rest.
During a February 11, 1918 service, most of the men and women on Islay gathered together to sing "The Star Spangled Banner" and "God Save the Queen." Several months later, when an American reporter visited the island, Hugh Morrison presented the flag, which made its way back to the Associated Press offices in New York City and, later, to President Woodrow Wilson.
While the flag was on display in Washington, D.C. for about a decade, it was eventually moved to storage where it stayed until this year- the 100th anniversary of the event. It will now be on display on Islay for several months.