A tragic twist in the Whiddy tale

Posted on: 8th August, 2014

Category: Features

Contributor: West Cork People

In last month’s edition, West Cork People ran a story on the unveiling of a memorial on Whiddy Island in honour of Petty Officer Walford August Anderson, who died in 1918 on a routine patrol flight from the WWI American Naval Sea Plane Base on Whiddy. In a follow-up to this, Tim O’Leary of the Whiddy Island Development Association recently received an email from Murray Bishoff, an employee of the Monett Times newspaper in Missouri (hometown of Petty Officer Anderson). The email contained images of old newspaper cuttings from the Monett Times, which reveals a lot more about the tragedy in a letter from Harvey O. Wilson, Anderson’s friend and fellow pilot.

The revelation from Wilson in his own words, edited only slightly for clarity, follows:

The Cover Note:

To the Editor:

Sir, I had a very good friend who came to Ireland in the first World War. He died in my stead, and I remember him so often and wonder if the U.S Navy ever told the way he died, I had a feeling at the time I should write the family, but not knowing their address, and also hesitated for fear I might disturb their thoughts and feelings. I never have revealed the way Walford Anderson died in my stead, it shouldn’t have happened as it did, but we were such friends we did things for each other and he just volunteered to go in my place, and as the enclosed explains, it happened as it did.

Use your judgement. Will harm be done by this revelation, will it help or harm his living relatives? If it were me, I’d appreciate knowing though it has been so many years ago. He was a fine young citizen and a friend to me,

Thank you,

Harvey O Wilson

The Letter:

He was from Monett, Missouri. The year was 1918 and we were good pals, the very best of friends, for we banked side by side, explored the Island together, and at every opportunity we were together. We were U.S. Naval Aviation flying submarine flyers, making lone flights out over the Atlantic on search and destroy missions from Bantry Bay on the Southwest corner of Ireland, each assigned to a Curtis H-16 “Flying Boat”, with two V-6 Liberty 12 cylinder motors, said to be 12 horsepower. My friend was assigned to one such flying boat and me another, the planes searching separate sections of the ocean, and many miles apart. Sometimes flights were at different time periods. We were in those times called “wireless telegraphers”. The date I no longer remember, but it was in September or October 1918. We had both had long flights many miles out over the shipping lanes. I and my plane were on standby, and it was getting late in the much longer day in which, because of being further north, day light lasted till after 9pm.

A coal barge had come in the evening before, dropping anchor a few yards out in the bay, with the coal for our Aviation camp. When the barge pulled anchor that morning, the communication cable to our camp came up on the anchor. The two man crew had worked all day trying to clear the anchor, but each time the anchor came up the cable still remained on it.

Our Officer of the Watch, knowing it was for the need of help that the men couldn’t free the anchor, asked for 10 volunteers to go out to the barge and help with the problem. Though it was my plane on standby for emergency flight, volunteers were short and the Office of the Watch seeing me standing and looking, said to me, “Wilson, though it is your plane on standby, I feel we’ll not have a call for assistance anymore today. If you want to go out and help, go ahead. They do need the help.”

As the small motor boat was leaving to go to the assistance of the barge, again the duty Officer motioned to me that I had permission to go, and I went and was assisting when my good friend Walford Anderson, came running down to the shore. “Harvey”, he called “there is a ship being attacked by a German sub and they are getting your plane ready to go. To avoid delay, if you don’t mind, I’ll go in your place.” I signaled it was ok with me and he ran and boarded the Flying Boat. It took off down Bantry Bay and disappeared from our sight.

We cleared the anchor of the cable. Back ashore, and supper over, I went to the Wireless shack to listen for how my plane with Walford in it could be progressing. It was out longer than expected, and came in to Bantry Bay as it was getting almost dark.

There was no wind and the bay was smooth as glass. The pilot and second pilot both, sort of puzzled by the smoothness of the bay, said it was like a mirror. They misjudged their height, or altitude since the mirror effect gave them the impression they were much higher and they brought the plane down too steeply.

Noticing his mistake, they tried to level its flight, but not quickly enough. It sort of dived into the water, but so violently it tore the starboard Liberty motor off its mounting. Walford’s wireless set being a bit forward but directly under that heavy 12 cylinder motor, it crashed through the body cover and hit Walford on the head. He was killed, they said, instantly.

My best friend had died in my stead. I should have been in that plane where he sat in my seat. My sorrow was deep. I did feel very bad – glad it wasn’t me but still wishing he hadn’t volunteered to take my flight. My thought was that maybe if I had gone on the flight I might have been in a different place and not been hit by the motor since at flight’s end after reeling in my antenna, I often stood up behind the pilots against the back of their seats, where I couldn’t be thrown out in a crash.

Walford and I made many long search and destroy flights from both Agada Ireland and Whiddy Ireland. It was cruel fate that I came home to my wife in 1919 and Walford’s wife was made a widow. As I’ve said I wanted to know how his wife and parents are or were and if they really knew the circumstances of his death. A long story about U.S. Naval Aviation during World War one could be written, but it was so long ago, records would be hard to locate to make the story authentic. To any Monet, Missouri folks who knew Walford, I express my sorrow and regret, but this is the way he died for me and in my place.

From the man for whom Walford died,

Harvey O. Wilson

58 Fox Street, Menasha, Wisconsin 54952

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