Home-made American flag marking tragedy returns to Scottish island

The US flag being held by an American survivor at a mass funeral on Islay was hand- sewn by women on the island. It is now at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC.
The US flag being held by an American survivor at a mass funeral on Islay was hand- sewn by women on the island. It is now at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC.
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An American flag hand-stitched 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 seven miles from Islay.

The ship was carrying about 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 an estimated 230 died, with many bodies washed up on the rocks at the Mull of Oa.

The flag was made to ensure the men were buried on Islay beneath their country’s colours. It is now at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington.

It will go show at the Museum of Islay Life in Port Charlotte next month.

Jenny Minto, chairwoman of the WW100 Islay committee, who works at 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”.

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.”

Minto travelled to Washington last year to see 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.”

Lord George Robertson of Port Ellen, the former defence secretary and Nato secretary general, will attend centenary commemorations on the island on Friday.

His grandfather, Malcolm MacNeill, was the island’s police sergeant at the time of the tragedy, and had the task of co-ordinating rescues and identifying bodies.

Lord Robertson said: “The flag is a very precious item and an important part of the commemoration. There was a deep feeling that these servicemen had to be honoured in the proper way.”

Sgt MacNeill corresponded for many years with US servicemen’s relatives hoping to establish the fate of their loved ones. He was awarded an MBE for his services.

Lord Roberston said: “My grandfather worked on an island with virtually no crime. There may have been a few tractors with no lights but to go from that to this almost Lockerbie-type disaster right on your doorstep is almost unimaginable.”

The scale of his grandfather’s role was revealed to the family when his letters and notebooks were discovered in an uncle’s attic in Glasgow.

Also to be remembered is a second tragedy that struck Islay eight months after the sinking of the Tuscania. On October 6, HMS Otranto hit a steamship off Machir Bay, with 400 more 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 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 gave everything they had.”

The bodies of the men were exhumed and either repatriated or buried at the American Cemetery at Brookwood in Surrey.

Call air Cladach Ile/The Loss on Islay’s Shore is on BBC Alba tonight at 9pm.