On September 25, 1918 during the waning days of the First World War, Cpl. Marvin Stancell boarded the HMS Otranto in New York bound for Glasgow. Otranto was a former passenger liner refitted at the start of the war as an armed merchant cruiser and troop carrier. Marvin was my first cousin, twice removed, meaning he was my grandmother’s cousin, in this case my paternal grandmother, Maple Smith Farlow.
On October 6, 1918 off the coast of Scotland during a terrible storm near the Isle of Islay, HMS Otranto collided with HMS Kashmir. The Kashmir’s bow cut into HMS Otranto opening a hole twenty feet by sixteen feet, fatally wounding the ship. Because of the storm, the crew were unable to launch any lifeboats and rescue efforts of nearby ships, while saving many, were hampered. Battered by the waves, HMS Otranto broke up on a reef and sank three hours after being struck.
Four hundred and seventy men lost their lives that day, among them 357 American soldiers and among them Cpl. Marvin James Stancell.
When my grandmother Farlow wrote down her memories in 2000, this is one of the events she remembers from her childhood, not the details of the sinking but the impact of it on her aunt, Marvin’s mother:
We were living on the Salmon farm when truce was declared on November 11, 1918, ending World War I. Mama and papa had several relatives who served in that war. Aunt Frankie Stansell, mama’s only sister, had one son in the Marines whose ship was sunk and everyone drowned. I remember it very well – Aunt Frankie got a package containing his clothing that she said was dry, but still had salt from the seawater in it. She also received his personal things, pictures, etc., from his pockets. That package was very dear to her. She kept it just as it had been delivered, except, of course, she opened it.
The dead from HMS Otranto were buried in Scotland in the Kilchoman Cemetery. There is also a monument in on the Isle of Islay to those who lost their lives that day. Marvin’s story, however, doesn’t end there. In 1920 his remains were repatriated to the United States and he was buried in Arlington Cemetery in Virginia.