Seaman Edwards' story one of many from WWI

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Leonard Lanier

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Sunday, May 27, 2018

They came from across the Albemarle. From Elizabeth City. From Jackson. From Gum Neck. They came from all walks of life: farmers, lawyers, students. None of them knew their destiny. They only knew that America was now at war, and that the nation required them to fight. These 108 men answered that call, and paid the ultimate price.

The military death registers from World War I contain the names of 2,375 North Carolinians killed in “the war to end war.” Of that number, 108 came from 13 counties in the northeastern part of the state. Yet, the death figures do not tell the whole story.

Behind each of those 108 names is a story. A young man off on the voyage of a lifetime. An old man ready to retire. An African-American seeking better opportunities up north. One article cannot relate all their stories, but let one saga serve as a testament for all the lives lost in the Great War.

Allen Thomas Edwards grew up in rural Northampton County. His mother ran a small boarding house in the county seat, Jackson. Edwards’ father was a local merchant, but died before his son’s eleventh birthday. His widowed mother raised six children alone.

Edwards’ motivation to enlist remains unknown. The loss of his father certainly placed an economic burden on the entire family. In a small place like Jackson, population 527, a life in the military also probably seemed exotic and adventuresome. Whatever the reason, on Aug. 18, 1916, Edwards traveled the short distance to Norfolk and joined the U.S. Navy. He barely met the minimum age requirement.

Just seven months after Edwards’ enlistment, the United States entered the Great War. The navy went, almost overnight, from a small peacetime service to the second-largest armed flotilla in the world. Most of this growth came via the purchase of privately-owned watercraft.

On Aug. 3, 1917, Edwards joined the crew of the USS Alcedo, a newly-bought member of this auxiliary fleet. The Alcedo began life as a personal yacht, built for the son of Anthony J. Drexel, founder of Drexel University. The navy desired shallow-draft wooden craft like the Alcedo as patrol boats to operate in coastal waters.

Seaman 2nd Class Edwards’ new floating home served outside the French port of Brest. Her duties included antisubmarine deterrence and convoy assistance. Despite her antiquated armament of four obsolete 3-inch guns, the Alcedo ably completed her assignment. In one noteworthy incident, she rescued 117 survivors from a torpedoed troop transport.

Early on the morning of November 5, 1917, a lookout on the Alcedo spotted a submarine’s silhouette. It belonged to the UC-71. Just as the alarm arose, the U-boat’s German commander, Oberleutnant zur See Ernst Steindorff, launched a torpedo, which struck the former yacht near the bow. The ship sank in four minutes.

The USS Alcedo was the first navy vessel lost to enemy action in World War I. Of 49 men aboard, 21 drowned. The dead included Allen Thomas Edwards. He was only 18 years old.

Leonard Lanier is an Artifact Collections Assistant at Museum of the Albemarle.